Social media users could end up behind bars for tweeting memes and using certain hashtags thanks to a new legal crackdown in the UK.
Prosecutors in the UK were issued new guidelines which state that “photoshopped images” and “derogatory hashtags” can be sufficient reason for a prison sentence.
They also said that “those who encourage others” to harass people online can end up in court.
But really, the idea that we can't mock anyone because they might be hurt is BS because we know who'll be prosecuted and who will be immune.
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) October 10, 2016
The warning came as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) rewrote its rules for when public prosecutors should launch cases against social media users.
No new laws were passed – but CPS spelled out in far more detail than before what they believe counts as a violation of existing statues, including the Serious Crime Act 2007.
The list of new transgressions included acts such as doxxing – posting private information online – and revenge porn, which few would argue against treating as crimes.
But it also opened the way for more controversial prosecutions, including those involving pictures deemed to be offensive.
The guidelines say that if prosecutors consider an image “disturbing or sinister” that could warrant a prosecution.
— CPS (@cpsuk) October 10, 2016
As an example they cite photoshopping somebody’s head onto a nude photo of somebody else – a clear-cut case. But real-world applications could be broader.
The CPS is also seeking to outlaw online “encouragement” to harass people, which can include making a hashtag.
Describing a potential offence, the guidelines list: “encouragement to tweet or re-tweet (“RT”) a grossly offensive message; or the creation of a derogatory hashtag”.
The definition of “grossly offensive” and “derogatory” would be left to prosecutors.
The new laws would present an interesting test case in future Tweetstorms like that surrounding Milo Yiannopoulos and Leslie Jones earlier this year.
No critics of Milo – who was banned from Twitter – could point to racist or harassing posts he personally made during the dispute.
"Internet trolls beware – these rules will separate the haters from the hapless" https://t.co/eRcBS2DzTX
— Anti-Social Media (@ASM_Podcast) October 10, 2016
But the common complaint was that he was a ringleader and egged on other posters. Milo argued that he could not be held responsible for the transgressions of others – but, under these new laws, English prosecutors may disagree.
A CPS spokesman confirmed to Heat Street that, depending on the context of the social media offence, offenders could end up in prison for several years.
The new guidelines acknowledge that they risk causing “a chilling effect on free speech” – and tell prosecutors to exercise “considerable caution”.
However, it is unclear how restrained they will prove to be in practice.