Social media prosecutions threaten free speech in the UK - and beyond

Traditions like Speakers' Corner protect free speech on the street, so why can't we do it on the internet?

Visitors to Hyde Park on a Sunday can see people standing on stepladders engaged in passionate debate with groups clustered around them. Speakers’ Corner is a symbol of Britain’s centuries old commitment to freedom of speech.

When it comes to free speech on the internet, however, Britain seems to have lost its way. Recent prosecutions for material posted on social media sites and internet forums raise troubling questions about the state of the law and limits of free expression. These prosecutions are causing dismay not just in the UK but among those battling internet censorship around the globe.

This week alone, a 19-year-old man was sentenced to 12 weeks in a young offenders’ institution after posting comments, some sexual, about two girls who are missing and presumed dead. A 20-year old man was sentenced to 240 hours of community service for posting comments about dead soldiers on his Facebook page. 

In March, a 21-year old man was sentenced to 56 days in prison for racist comments on Twitter about a seriously ill black footballer. In August, a 26-year old man was given a two-year suspended sentence and community service after posting racial insults on the website of Liverpool football club. 

It should be well-established that freedom of expression includes the freedom to shock, offend or disturb. Yet with the amplifying effect and legal novelty of social media, that basic truth is too often overlooked.
Even in cases involving incitement to violence, there are questions about whether the response of the authorities has been proportionate. Police arrested a 17-year-old boy in August for death threats on Twitter against a British Olympic swimmer, and cautioned rather than charging him. But four-year sentences for two men for incitement during the August 2011 riots were upheld by the Court of Appeal later that year, despite the lack of evidence that anyone was actually incited to  riot as a result.

There is a growing recognition in Britain that these trends threaten free expression. In July, a panel of High Court judges, including the head of the judiciary, quashed the 2010 conviction of a 27-year old man – and the £1,000 fine - for a tweet in which he jokingly threatened to blow up a local airport because of his frustration that it was closed because of bad weather. The ruling in what social media referred to as “Twitter Joke Trial” quoted Shakespeare for emphasis: “They are free to speak not what they ought to say, but what they feel.”  But the ruling appears not to have deterred prosecutors and the lower courts from pursuing similar cases.

The top prosecutor in England and Wales, Kier Starmer, has said he is concerned about the potential chilling effect arising from prosecutions for offensive speech and this week began consultations with lawyers, police, free expression groups and social media companies, as part of a review of guidelines for such prosecutions.
Part of the problem is that the laws in place were designed for a different era. The offence the two men were prosecuted for this week – grossly offensive electronic communication – is part of the Communications Act 2003, passed when social media were in their infancy and Twitter and Facebook, which can quickly transform private thoughts into mass communication, did not exist.  The offense dates back even earlier, though, to the 1930s and was designed to protect telephone operators.

The Director of Public Prosecutions will hopefully bring some much-needed restraint to the social media prosecutions, helping to delineate distinctions between material that is merely offensive, however so, and material that is part of a campaign of harassment, credible threat or clear incitement to violence. Prosecutors already have a duty to ensure that any prosecution is in the public interest and to protect free expression  -- a right given particular emphasis in the domestic Human Rights Act. 

Law magistrates and professional judges also need clearer guidance about the importance of free expression in a democratic society. But ultimately a change to the law is likely to be required to ensure that free speech is protected.

Hyde Park has long been famous. It must be puzzling and discouraging to people in less democratic countries who look to the UK as a model to see people here being sent to jail for speaking their minds.  But with the right approach, Britain could do the same for speech on the internet as Speaker’s Corner did for speech on the streets.

Benjamin Ward is deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
 

Communist MP Saklatvala Shapurji holding forth at Speakers' Corner in 1933. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Benjamin Ward is deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.