Free Speech Groups Warn Against Legal Crackdown on Social Media

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By Kieran Corcoran | 4:01 am, October 11, 2016

Free speech advocates have warned about new prosecuting guidelines which open the door to social media users being jailed for “offensive” and “sinister” posts.

Experts from the Index on Censorship and English PEN both voiced unease that moves in the UK to further outlaw offending people online could lead down a dark road.

The UK Crown Prosecution Service yesterday issued a stern set of new guidelines laying out in more detail than ever which online activities can lead to prosecution.

They aimed their legal firepower at practices like doxxing and revenge pornography – but also less straightforwardly objectionable acts, like photoshopping images and creating “derogatory hashtags”.

It also raises the prospect of imprisoning people for harassment which they were not directly part of, because of stipulations that “encouraging” abuse can itself be an offence. (You can read Heat Street‘s full report on the crackdown here).

Responding to the new measures, Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg told Heat Street: “It’s not at all clear that these guidelines will be any better than the previous set in ensuring free speech is protected.

“We’re still stuck with the ridiculous notion of it being a criminal offence to send messages that are ‘grossly offensive’. It should not be a crime to offend people.”

Robert Sharp, a spokesman for free speech campaigners English PEN, also commented, telling us: “Free speech must always include the right to offend.

“The law already bans abusive, harassing or threatening messages, which is surely adequate to stop the worst social media trolls.

“The words ‘grossly offensive’ are highly subjective and introduce ambiguity into the the law. This in turn chills free speech.

“Parliament should legislate to remove these words from the Communications Act, just as it removed similar wording from the Public Order Act in 2014.

“Other countries look to the UK on free speech issues – criminalising causing offence sets a poor international example.”

The CPS has tried to head off criticism of its new laws by advising prosecutors to exercise “considerable caution” in their decision-making to avoid “a chilling effect on free speech”.

It remains to be seen how effective this instruction will be.