In what is believed to be the first case of its kind and a salient warning on the dangers of “tweeting first and thinking later”, Trainee Accountant Paul Chambers was convicted by Doncaster Magistrates’ Court yesterday of the relatively new offence of “improper use of a public electronic communications network” after posting a comment on Twitter threatening to “blow up” Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire.
In what was described as “a moment of frustration”, Chambers posted the offending tweet on 6 January 2010 after being unable to travel due to heavy snow – “Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your sh– together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”
The message only came to the attention of the Airport’s Security Team after a routine search of the site a few days later. Although the threat was deemed to be “not credible”, it was passed on to Special Branch and Chambers was arrested at his workplace shortly thereafter.
Chambers’ defence team argued that he only intended the message to be seen by his 600 followers and did not expect it to appear in the site’s Public Timeline, especially when Twitter features an average of 600 messages per second. Despite an apology for his behaviour and evidence to demonstrate Chambers’ general tone of postings on Twitter, District Judge Jonathan Bennett found him guilty of the offence of Improper Use of a Public Electronic Communications Network under Section 127 of the Telecommunications Act 2003.
Chambers was fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 costs, with the District Judge describing the post as “of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live” The conviction comes a day after Twitter was hit by a security issue which saw entire lists of followers deleted.
The advent of social media and Web 2.0 technologies and platforms such as Twitter and other social networks now allow virtually any user to post content and opinion in real time. Whilst this means that there is now a real democracy in opinion available to the public rather than the previous promotion of content created by a few major outlets, it also means that the content in question can be viewed by a much larger (and perhaps unintended) audience, in this case the security staff at Robin Hood Airport and ultimately the Police.
Chambers’ conviction was for an offence under Section 127 of the 2003 Act, which prohibits sending a message or other matter over a “Public Telecommunications Network” (which includes Twitter) that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. The offence has rarely been used since its introduction, with this being by far the most high-profile case due to the fact that it raised real concerns over the use of the Section 127 Offence as opposed to the existing offence of communication of a bomb hoax under Section 51 (2) of the Criminal Law Act 1977.
The Offence under the 1977 Act requires the “intention of inducing…in any other person a false belief that a bomb or other thing liable to explode or ignite is present in any place or location whatsoever”. Demonstrating that intention and securing a conviction is not an easy task for a prosecutor, whereas the Section 127 offence under the 2003 Act only requires that the message was “menacing”, which was argued in this case.
Notably, Chambers was originally arrested under the 1977 Act. The Section 127 Offence was originally designed to deal with threatening telephone calls and appears to have been used selectively to fit the facts in this case when another more suitable offence is available which contains the necessity for intent and as such provides some protection for Defendants. Whilst it’s hard to argue that it would have a “chilling effect” upon social media, the offence is potentially open to misuse as many claim is the case here.
This case is a cautionary tale to any Twitter user that in the tense times in which we live where the internet is being very actively monitored for potential threats to national security or content involving terrorist activity, what seems like a harmless joke when sent may well lead to very serious consequences.
The only evidence that would not be potentially unreliable at any trial would be the tweet itself, which can be used just like any other piece of information. Not everyone in your social network will always share your sense of humour and your audience may include the Police. The online world is subject to the same legal principles as the real world, which users can sometimes forget.