Social Media Law: More Guidance but No Progress

Big Brother Watch Team / October 11, 2016

To coincide with Hate Crime Awareness Week the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has published updated guidance on how to deal with cases which involve the use of social media.

The laws which are used to tackle social media crime were also the subject of a Big Brother Watch report in February 2015. Careless Whispers outlined a number of small, yet important steps that were vital to ensuring the laws governing our conduct on social media were up to date and effective. They were:

1. A full review of the legislation governing communications on social media.

2. The repeal of Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

3. The removal of the phrase “grossly offensive” from the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

4. The introduction of a common approach to enforcing legislation.

It’s impossible to tell from the new guidance whether crime on social media will be treated equally across all areas of the UK. However what it does show is that none of our other recommendations have been put into practice.

A full review of the legislation governing social media is necessary to ensure that the laws being used to regulate what we say or do are fit for purpose. Currently the complex web of different legislation risks causing confusion amongst police officers tasked with responding to complaints. Worse still most of the legislation is now out of date having been drafted to deal with one to one communications rather than the one to many communications social media now enables. Only by properly assessing every law being used in this arena will we be able to see what needs to change.

As well as being out of date Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 is incredibly broad. It doesn’t cover any specific crime and as a result has been used in a myriad of questionable cases such as the “Twitter joke trial”.

The phrase “grossly offensive” is subjective. As importantly causing offence shouldn’t be a crime, in its current form the wording sets a dangerous precedent and will contribute to the Act being applied differently in different areas. As such it should be removed from the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

Clearly more of us are living more of our lives online than ever before, for this reason it is important that the laws which are meant to protect us there are fit for purpose. Currently this is simply not the case and it’s something which no amount of well-intentioned guidance is going to fix. Real change is needed.