One of the many ways in which the internet has altered society is the platform it has provided us all upon which we can have ‘our say’. From consumers using twitter to complain about the poor customer service of their mobile phone provider, to the way in which citizens harnessed social media to topple repressive regimes during the Arab Spring, the internet has given ordinary people a voice they may not have had before. For democracy and the rights of citizens this is undoubtedly a positive, but there is of course another side to handing people the power to broadcast what they want, when they want to the world.
The increasing prominence of 'Twitter crimes' can hardly have escaped public awareness with a new law suit launching every week for various social media offences. Alone in Northern Ireland the number of people who have been convicted of crimes involving social media has tripled since 2009, and across the entire UK the number is steadily rising. For those in law enforcement the rise of these offences is creating new and complex challenges. For example, how to establish the legal turning point from when a strongly opinionated blog post becomes a criminal offence? Governing freedom of speech and expression has always been notoriously difficult for legislators (such is the subjective nature of whether one person may take offence from what another says or does) and this new element to it not only multiplies the amount of potential cases but also demands that different rules need apply (for example can you enforce the same laws over what a columnist writes in a national newspaper to what a teenager writes on Facebook?).
Due to the complexity of the matter, currently each individual case is taken to Crown Prosecution Service headquarters to be assessed. With the consistent rise of these allegations it is increasingly apparent that a rule book must be put in place detailing the line between criminality and freedom of speech and interim guidelines are already being drafted as a temporary measure.
The recent press regulation charter seems to be struggling in identifying who and what exactly should be regulated. What has been established is that namely the press and journalists will be subject to these regulations – however, it does not take into account the internet which enables any individual to post inappropriate and offensive content on various social media sites, provided it is not illegal (as defined by current legislation). The Guardian newspaper have referred to this flaw as “fundamental technical illiteracy” and ultimately, a fatal oversight in an era where websites like Twitter have more and more prominence in the public sphere and should be, it is argued, regulated more heavily as a result.
Fundamentally though, any rulebook will simply be a set of guidelines. It would be virtually impossible to create an airtight set of rules which would be relevant to each individual case. As a result we are likely to see the parameters adjusted on a regular basis to take into account the ever occurring “grey areas” which will continue to plague this issue. It is well known that any prosecution will be countered by the established Freedom of Expression ruling by the European Convention of Human Rights complicating the process even further.
So what does this mean for freedom of speech on the internet? In the UK there are undoubtedly more limitations in place and higher chance of legal repercussions (of saying something potentially harmful or damaging) then there once was. A worrying development for those in ardent favour of a free and truly open internet, but surely a predictable and logical response to us as citizens living more and more of our lives in the digital sphere. More worrying is recent news (most notably the Prism saga) that the internet, rather than being more free and open is creating new forms of surveillance that governments can use to potentially strengthen censorship.
What’s evident from all recent debates and news on twitter crimes and internet freedom is that we are unlikely to reach a stage anytime soon where concrete standards are agreed upon. And perhaps, at this moment in time, while social media is still in many ways in its infancy, that represents the most acceptable state of affairs.