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 Images
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I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here