This week I took part in a debate on Communications and Social Media. Steve Rotheram MP had secured the debate and I spoke as Solicitor General following the publication of the “Interim CPS Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media” on 19 December last year, issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Government Consultation on this runs until 13 March.
With the rise of online commentary over the last ten years, the phenomenon of “internet trolling” has become an increasing problem. Steve Rotheram touched on the tragic case of Georgia Varley and her Facebook memorial page which became littered with offensive material posted by “internet trolls” who inflicted psychological abuse on readers of the page.
Steve Rotheram was concerned with how the Crown Prosecution Service will adequately prosecute those abusing social media and he touched upon certain points which he felt the DPP guidelines did not adequately cover, significantly what can be deemed as in the “public interest” and what can be deemed as acceptable speech, when considering a possible prosecution against a particular party. He referred to the timescales and investigative methods currently employed in the investigation of social media abuse claims and suggested they were not adequate whilst highlighting the need to take the European Court of Human Right’s decisions into account too.
In cases where credible threats of violence are made or harassment is occurring or court orders being broken, there must be prosecutions, but there also needs to be space for vigorous open debate, gossip and banter. So in cases of offensive remarks there needs to be a high threshold before prosecution, but clearly some offensive remarks are so gross that firm action must be taken. The new guidelines try to explain these matters and put them in legal context.
There is also some overlap with the Government’s work on the Defamation Bill which seeks to ensure a fair balance is struck between freedom of speech and the protection of people’s reputations and I look forward to seeing how this piece of legislation finally passes through Parliament. When I spoke in the debate, I was able to explain how internet trolling is addressed within the DPP guidelines. I commented on the rise of prosecutions brought against abusers of social media since December 2012 and explained that the DPP Guidelines are not intended to restrict free speech but people must take responsibility when expressing an opinion online.
Prosecutors can bring cases for serious Crown Court offences such as Threats to Kill and Harassment or choose Magistrates Court offences under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act and section 127 of the Communications Act. The posting of grossly offensive messages online about certain parties cannot be condoned and under the new DPP guidelines, in conjunction with the Defamation Bill, steps are being taken to tackle this issue, whilst respecting the need for a margin to allow for freedom of expression.