Thursday, September 20, 2012

Confusion reigns over UK Internet freedom

The UK's Director of Public Prosecutions this morning published an extremely sensible statement after deciding not to prosecute Daniel Thomas, the author of a homophobic tweet about Olympic divers Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield:
“This was, in essence, a one-off offensive Twitter message, intended for family and friends, which made its way into the public domain. It was not intended to reach Mr Daley or Mr Waterfield, it was not part of a campaign, it was not intended to incite others and Mr Thomas removed it reasonably swiftly and has expressed remorse. Against that background, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, Jim Brisbane, has concluded that on a full analysis of the context and circumstances in which this single message was sent, it was not so grossly offensive that criminal charges need to be brought."
This was a positive application of the Human Rights Act and European human rights jurisprudence to a tweet that qualified for the Communications Act 2003 offence of a "grossly offensive" communication sent using a public electronic network. This offence clearly needs reviewing, as the DPP suggests:
"Social media is a new and emerging phenomenon raising difficult issues of principle, which have to be confronted not only by prosecutors but also by others including the police, the courts and service providers. The fact that offensive remarks may not warrant a full criminal prosecution does not necessarily mean that no action should be taken. In my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media."
Douwe Korff and I suggested a possible approach in a report for the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights last year.

The message does not seem to have reached the Greater Manchester police, who have this afternoon arrested a man over a Facebook page praising the alleged murderer of two officers. While repellent, is this really their highest priority right now? There are concerns that the police press conference (as well as a statement by the prime minister) may already have prejudiced the forthcoming murder trial.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Can the world agree on free speech principles?

Prof. Timothy Garton Ash and his team at St Antony's College have just launched their fascinating new free speech project, FreeSpeechDebate:

Ten draft principles for global free speech are laid out, together with explanations and case studies – all for debate. Prominent figures from diverse cultures, faiths and political tendencies are interviewed and asked to comment, through video, audio and text. We have Indian novelist Arundhati Roy on the media and national security in India; Iranian cleric Mohsen Kadivar on Islam and the criminalisation of insults to religion; Chinese academic Yan Xuetong on universal values; former head of the Formula One association Max Mosley on privacy with more to come… The entire editorial content is carefully translated into 13 languages, covering more than 80% of the world's internet users, by native-speakers of those languages (mainly graduate students at Oxford University). Anyone can then contribute to the online discussion in these or any other widely used languages, and there is a facility to give a rough translation of every user-generated comment into most languages using machine translation.

I have greatly enjoyed being an adviser to the project. Here is the two-part interview I recently did with Prof. Ash: