Picture the scene – you’re planning a holiday in Los Angeles as a getaway from Coventry. Understandably excited (you’re escaping the UK, after all), you want to share your plans with your friends if for no other reason than to make them jealous and, as you’re one of the “Twitterati”, you send out this tweet to one of your followers:
“Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America.”
Not long after, you send another tweet talking about “digging up Marilyn Monroe”. Then you think nothing more of it, charge up your iPod (other generic MP3 players are available) for the flight and get ready to arrive at Los Angeles International Airport. Touching down and meandering through immigration with your Visas filled out correctly, it soon becomes clear that you’re not in Kansas any more (although, for the purposes of this post, you COULD be) and that they take this kind of thing pretty seriously around here – imagine the look on my face in 1992 when my Dad was stopped during our first family holiday to Florida and questioned for a good hour or so over both the Iraqi and Libyan visas stamped in his Passport. (He’s an engineer, by the way, and NOT an Arms Dealer.) To put it bluntly, US Immigration has no sense of humour.
Still, if you’ve done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide and surely you’ll breeze through Visa Control with the usual sense of incredulity at the sheer amount of information held in your Biometric Passport. Then, you’re arrested and held under armed guard for twelve hours before being put on the first flight back to the UK, having been denied entry to the Land Of The Free after being identified as a possible “threat” by Homeland Security. It sounds like the script for a particularly low-budget episode of “24”, but this happened to Leigh Van Bryan and Emily Bunting around two weeks ago. Explanations as to the fact that his second tweet referred to a joke from “Family Guy” and that “destroy” was UK slang for partying fell on very deaf ears and, after an overnight stay in the cells, both Bunting and Van Bryan were heading back to the sunny Midlands.
You’d like to think that something similar would never happen here, but anyone familiar with the “Twitter Joke Trial” would tell you otherwise. Currently under appeal in the High Court, this case saw Paul Chambers convicted of the offence of “misuse of a public electronic communications system” under the Communications Act 2003 after sending this tweet:
“Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”
Surely we can take a joke, regardless of how high tensions may be over terrorism? Surely anyone monitoring Chambers’ feed would realise that this post wasn’t meant to be taken seriously? You’d think so, but not long after the now-infamous Tweet, Chambers was arrested in late 2009 for offences under Section 51 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 – making a hoax bomb threat. It’s a serious offence that, as in any criminal case, has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt, but it also requires the Prosecution to show that the defendant intended to cause at least one other person to believe that a bomb was about to go off. in the end, Chambers was bailed and eventually charged under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for using a public electronic communications network (a definition which includes Twitter, Facebook and any other Social Network) to send a message of “indecent, obscene or menacing character”. This offence does not need to relate to any specific threat and the prosecution does not need to show that anyone even received the message – a far easier conviction to secure.
Chambers was convicted and fined after a Judge found his tweet to be “menacing” and his life has since changed in ways he couldn’t imagine. As well as the sheer waste of tax payers’ money in bringing a prosecution that seems to have not been so much about the public interest but more about heavy-handed and baffling deterrence, Chambers now has a criminal record and a career that’s been set back to square one. You may say that he deserves it, but surely the Police could have just cautioned him and sent him on his way? Many agreed, and the #iamspartacus hashtag was born – thousands retweeted his message to make the point that this case simply went too far and that civil liberty is as important on the web as it is to the Occupy London tent protesters.
The point of all this? Big brother is watching you, now more than ever. The Police are actively monitoring social media. We are seeing more criminal cases involving web use (or misuse) than ever – recently a Manchester woman was jailed after “friending” the Defendant in a trial on which she was a Juror and only last week an academic was jailed for using the web to research a defendant in a case in which she sat on the Jury. Rioters using Facebook, Twitter or BBM to organise civil disobedience have been jailed, and appeals against their sentence dismissed. As much as the US has the Patriot Act and a number of other exceptions to civil liberties which we may see as Orwellian, criminal activity online is now more than ever being treated in the same way as it would offline, and common sense over what you Tweet is going to become far more important than your Avatar.
The Government (specifically Theresa May) have wrung their hands publicly about how to deal with the problem of criminal activity online, and there’s only one answer – education. Thoughtcrime is still fictional, and the Terrorism Act 2006 is better placed to deal with real terror threats made over the web than the Communications Act, which was introduced to deal with threatening telephone calls. As much as you shouldn’t probably say anything on Twitter that you wouldn’t say in person, isn’t the point that you have the right to say it? Simply “switching off Twitter”, as suggested during the 2011 riots, makes tracking those responsible for using it to incite or threaten even more difficult. The Tweets must still flow, but that doesn’t mean the Web is a free-for-all. It never has been, and it’s probably fair to say that someone who’s experienced that wake up call more than most is Leigh Van Bryan. The moral of the story – the law is an ass (at least in this case) and for the meantime, a Tweet in haste may give you an ample opportunity to repent at leisure, maybe even at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.