UK & World News
Twitter Prosecutions 'May Fall' Amid New Advice
There are likely to be fewer criminal prosecutions against those who abuse and offend others on social media, under new guidelines which come into effect today.
Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC has issued the new guidance in response to a huge increase in the number of prosecutions his department is having to deal with.
From today, the threshold for criminal action will be raised, meaning those who post offensive messages on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, however hurtful, will in most cases escape prosecution.
Mr Starmer said the guidelines were intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and upholding criminal law.
Now, social media messages which amount to credible threats of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment, or which breach court orders will be prosecuted robustly.
An example of this is the nine people each ordered to pay compensation to the woman raped by footballer Ched Evans after they named her on Twitter and Facebook.
Her naming breached a court order prohibiting the identification of victims of sexual offences. Any similar cases would still be prosecuted robustly.
Aggressive "trolling" would also probably fall under this banner as it could be specifically targeted and constitute harassment or stalking, Mr Starmer said.
But in cases where someone is simply deemed to have posted offensive messages, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyers will need to be satisfied that a prosecution is in the public interest.
For criminal charges to be brought, a message must now be shown to be more than offensive, shocking or disturbing; more than satirical, iconoclastic or rude; and more than the expression of an unpopular or unfashionable opinion, the guidelines state.
Also, if a message is swiftly deleted, blocked by service providers or websites, or shown not to be intended for a wider audience, a prosecution is unlikely.
"In most cases, once you have put the (new) safeguards in place then a prosecution is unlikely to be the appropriate response," Mr Starmer said.
"To that extent, therefore, it is to make it less likely that these cases will be prosecuted."
It might mean in future that people like Matthew Wood, jailed for 12 weeks in October 2012 for posting "abhorrent" messages about the missing five-year-old April Jones, would escape criminal sanction.
Swansea student Liam Stacey might also have been spared a prosecution.
He was jailed in March 2012 for 56 days for tweeting abusive messages after Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed with a cardiac arrest during an FA cup match against Tottenham Hotspur.
The guidelines point out that context is important and the tone of social media messages is different to other communications.
The May 2010 conviction of Paul Chambers for joking on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire is one of the most well-known cases in this area.
His conviction for sending a "menacing" tweet drew widespread condemnation and was eventually quashed on appeal in the High Court in July this year.
Mr Starmer now admits that the CPS made the wrong "judgment call" to prosecute the 28-year-old and included his solicitor in discussions over the law.
The guidelines also state children (under-18s) will rarely face criminal charges for offensive tweets or Facebook posts.
While intended for the CPS to make a decision whether to charge someone or not, the guidelines are also designed to offer early advice to police - while encouraging officers to seek guidance from the CPS at the earliest possible opportunity.
With more than 340 million tweets a day and growing, the new guidelines have been welcomed by those who see raising the threshold for prosecution as a common-sense approach.
But equally, there are others, including many victims who will fear the new guidance could be seen by some on social media as a charter to abuse.