Crime on social media covered by existing UK law, Lords conclude (Wired UK)


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The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications has
concluded that our current laws are sufficient for dealing with
offences committed on social media.

In a report published today, which follows on from a short inquiry
into the matter, the committee has decided that social media
offences are adequately covered by a range of existing legislation
including the Communications Act 2003, the Malicious Communications
Act 1988 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The committee
also established that guidance for prosecutions in the case of
social media offences accounts appropriately for freedom of
expression.

The background against which the inquiry took place was an
increasing number of situations in which people were committing
criminal offences using social networks — particularly Facebook
and Twitter. The committee examined instances of cyber bullying,
revenge porn, trolling and virtual mobbing to try and determine
whether or not they were criminal offences and if they were,
whether new legislation was required to deal with them.

Representatives from Facebook and Twitter gave evidence to the committee as part of the inquiry and
explained thoroughly how they handled complaints from users.
Neither of the social networks was able to offer figures and
statistics about the number of complaints they handled, but both
pointed out that due to excessive noise in the reporting system,
the figures could easily be misleading anyway.

“You could literally have a spike in reports one day, and when
you dig down into them, you just find that somebody took a notion
somewhere that Harry Styles was better than Justin Bieber and
everybody complained about Bieber fans. That adds nothing to the
substance of what you are trying to look at today,” said Sinead
McSweeney, Twitter’s director of public policy (EMEA), in her
evidence.

Both representatives also explained that they had systems in
place that would prioritise certain types of complaints over
others, in order that they were able to deal with the most serious
issues and incidences of harassment first. Facebook’s policy
director for the UK Simon Milner pointed out that reports from more
vulnerable users — under 18s who were reporting feeling bullied,
for example — would be flagged as requiring attention before an
adult user reporting spam.

When asked whether they thought any extra legislation was
necessary for dealing with criminal offences on social media, both
Milner and McSweeney said that while that there is a need for
better education and more of it, there is no need for specific
legislation.

“There are various pieces of legislation that can be used to
prosecute offences on our service and on other services, because it
is not about the medium, it is about the offence,” said Milner. Any
attempt to create specific legislation would “inevitably become out
of date very quickly”, he added.

McSweeney also pointed out that while there was a circle of
people who were always going to commit crime with intent, whether
online or offline, there was another circle of people who might be
at risk of falling into committing criminal offences without
realising it. It is those people, she said, “that we have to
protect and save almost”.

In the end it came to pass that the committee agreed with both
Facebook and Twitter that no extra legislation needed to be
introduced, as did David Allen Green, who was the successful
solicitor in the Twitter Joke Trial appeal and is head of media law at Preiskel
& Co.

“There is plenty of law which already applies to those using
social media. But this law all in different places, and little of
it was enacted with social media in mind. We do not need any more
law, but we do perhaps need to make the law more consistent and
coherent in its application to social media,” he tells
Wired.co.uk.

There is also a question mark, says Green, over “whether there
should actually be special ‘social media’ or ‘electronic
communication’ offences. Why should the criminal law threat an
electronic communication differently from a non-electronic
communication, all other things being equal?”

Again, this was something that the committee focussed on in the
conclusion of its report, pointing out that bullying is not a
criminal offence and that “what is not an offence off-line should
not be an offence online”. They went on to say that there are
adequate laws in place already that will protect users against
grossly offensive materials causing any kind of distress or
anxiety. “Although we understand that ‘trolling’ causes offence, we
do not see a need to create a specific and more severely punished
offence for this behaviour,” they write.

All in all, it seems like the committee has reached the right
conclusion on the matter of whether extra laws are needed
specifically relating to social media communications, but in doing
so has uncovered the truly problematic issue. That is, the
legislation is clearly all there, but currently there seems to be
very little precedent for implementing it in the context of
internet-related offences. It seems like the ideal solution would
be for the relevant pieces of legislation to be drawn together in
one place, which would form something of a code for dealing with
criminal cases that arise as a result of social media
communications.

The inquiry has raised a number of further questions, however,
and the committee is appealing for more clarity from the Director
of Public Prosecutions, specifically on the matter of revenge
porn.

The committee has also made several recommendations following
the inquiry. Firstly, it is advising that due to the frequent need
to obtain evidence from abroad that the period of investigations be
extended from six to twelve months. Secondly, some of the statutes
relevant to social media offences were passed before the dawn of
the internet and therefore refer only to print media; the report
recommends updating then. Similarly, it is encouraging Facebook and
Twitter to speed up requests for identification from law
enforcement agencies.

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29 July 2014 | 7:28 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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