As many of you know, I'm a user of social media - mainly blogging, Twitter and Facebook - but lots of other things occasionally. I'm getting increasingly concerned at the lack of understanding of these new types of media and communication - especially by "people in high places" - the judiciary, the police, the CPS, and if the Digital Economy Act is anything to go by - the government.
I've written about the Digital Economy Bill, and a recent case where a blogger received an unnecessary visit from the police. I've also been following some disturbing libel cases, Simon Singh's being the most famous, but more recently Dave Osler, which was a case brought against him for a blog post he'd written more than a year earlier, and involved comments posted by others on his original post. Both of these have had good outcomes - eventually, after much time and money has been wasted and the defendants have had to put their lives on hold.
However, a recent case has REALLY made me cross! You may have heard about it - it's had a lot of press - David Mitchell has written a column about it, the News Quiz had a segment on it, and it's been covered in many news items.
Paul Chambers was frustrated- he was due to fly to Ireland, but Robin Hood Airport was closed because of snow. He posted a tweet along the lines of "you've got a week to get your shit together or I blow you sky high". He didn't send it to the airport - he tweeted it to his followers - he never expected anyone else, not least the airport to see it. However, 3 days later, someone from the airport did a search for Robin Hood Airport, and found it. Although they didn't think it was a credible threat, they reported it. And then all hell seemed to break loose. He was arrested and escorted from his place of work. His computers and mobile phone were seized and he was questioned for 7 hours. And then he was charged. Not with sending a bomb threat - even the CPS accepted that there was no evidence for this - but under a little known clause (section 127 ) of the Electronic Communications Act. Apparently Paul had sent a "menacing" message over a telecommunications network. Outrageously - he was then found guilty, fined £1000, had a criminal conviction, and lost his job. Now, his original tweet may not have been the most considered in history - but did it really merit this? And did the CPS really have to dredge up a little known clause in a law written for completely different reasons? I don't pretend to understand all of the legal issues in this - but jackofkent does a brilliant job of explaining them here, and if you're interested - and if you're reading this blog I suggest you should be - you would do well to read his posts on the subject.
This is an extremely important precedent - English law relies on case law - so this decision has a bearing all of us who blog, tweet, or...insert whatever tool might be there in the future. As soon as the verdict was announced Stephen Fry offered to pay the fine and a fund was set up to pay Paul's fine and his legal fees if he decided to appeal, supported by many prominent tweeters, especially famous comedians. I'm pleased to say that he is appealing, and the best legal team in the blogosphere is going to work pro bono on the case. I'm proud to have contributed to his fund, and I urge all of you who tweet or blog to do the same. This is important to protect the free speech of all of us in this new era of social media.
Good luck to Paul, and to all those working on the appeal - I'll follow it with interest.