July 31, 2013 | Jim Killock

Twitter abuse debate moves on: police say they want to give up on social media

The Twitter abuse debate has moved on significantly, onto the question of what the police are doing, and what difference that can make.

The police reacted swiftly, to try to relinquish responsibility, for instance:

Andy Trotter, who leads on social media for Britain's police forces, told the Guardian he feared that "a whole new tranche" of web-based hate crimes could "cause great difficulty for a hard-pressed police service" trying to deal with what could amount to thousands of allegations.

"We want social media companies to take steps to stop this happening. It's on their platforms this is occurring. They must accept responsibility for what's happening on their platforms ...
"They can't just set it up and walk away. We don't want to be in this arena. They are ingenious people, it can't be beyond their wit to stop these crimes, particularly those particularly serious allegations we have heard of over the weekend."

As Lilian Edwards asks:

What exactly do we have police for, then, if not to investigate specific, repeated and documented crimes? Giving up on policing Twitter is no more defensible than abandoning  a town like, say, Walthamstow to the criminal elements.

For a senior policeman, Mr Trotter also seems sadly ignorant of the law. Even leaving aside the issue of threat of rape as a common law crime, which might involve some difficult issues of sufficiently proving intention (though not many), the Protection Against Harassment Act 1997, especially s 4(1) makes it very clear that two attempts to "cause another to fear that violence will be used against him [sic] " form a course of conduct which is a crime. In the Perez and Creasy cases there are apparently hundreds of such threatening tweets, many retweeted or screencapped.

 It is impossible to understand how police who went ahead with investigating cases which involved poorly framed jokes on Twitter can now say they do not have the money to take on genuine, vicious  and entirely humorless threats of rape. It seems much more likely that they fear  they do not have the technical ability to understand how to police the Net , or the resources, and are terrified, and also worried that having destroyed their credibility on the Net once (see below), things can only get worse. But in that case the remedy is to acquire expertise, not to retreat to a pre 1996 position of declaring the social Internet terra incognita where elephantine trolls roam.

As Lilian implies, asking the police to investigate these crimes may not always inspire confidence among people who are regular users of Twitter. You may be reminded of the heavy handed tactics they employed against Paul Chambers after his joke, or the prosecutions of other people for suggesting that British soldiers deserve to die for their crimes in Afghanistan.

These prosecutions took place using Section 127 of the Communications Act, which criminalises "grossly offensive" speech using a public communications network. It covers a very wide range of potential speech, and it is unclear why the offence exists. In any case, its abuse has led to the Crown Prosecution Service advising that a "high threshold" should be employed in relation to use of S127, because of the free expression impacts. In their advice they note that human rights courts do not hold that mere offensiveness should result in criminalisation of speech. Offensiveness may be necessary to challenge ideas, after all.

The CPS says that communications that are either "credible threats" or "which specifically target an individual or individuals and which may constitute harassment or stalking within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997" "should be prosecuted robustly".

Thus the CPS seems to believe that the police should be playing their part by investigating behaviour which would clearly be illegal. This is different from non-credible threats, and activity which does not constitute harassment.

To balance their calls for strong action on illegal activity, Stella Creasy and Yvette Cooper should callfor Parliament to repeal Section 127 so that matters of offensive but non-threatening, non-harassing speech remain clearly out of scope.

Comments (10)

  1. Matt Flaherty:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 01:47 PM

    I have a proposal for a new "panic mode" that I think could go a long way to curbing the sort of abuse that escalates into a coordinated attack. It could also help with the sort of well intentioned piling on that sometimes happens when a person's tweets have been misunderstood.


  2. Lilian Edwards:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 02:44 PM

    I think that's a good balance Jim, I'd accompany it with a call to restrict the Malicious Communications Act to one to one communications (ie emails, texts, phone) alongside extending it to Scotland. Then we could start on to the Public Order Acts!

  3. stripe:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 04:10 PM

    can I ask a perfectly honest question about this forum? (and have it answered hopefully)
    if this is the wrong place please inform me where to post it

  4. Jim Killock:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 04:41 PM

    @stripe I hope we'll answer honestly of course!

  5. stripe:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 04:59 PM

    @jim thank you
    I am having some difficulty in understanding how both of the main topics for action fit with each other, on one hand the support for stopping the censorship/government blocking/interference with the web, while with the other encouraging the police/government to get involved with controlling the web by prosecuting trolls, to me it looks like they are in conflict, or am I missing the obvious? (probably)

  6. Jim Killock:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 06:11 PM

    Hi Don

    ORG takes the view that these are the kinds of principles we believe in

    * Human rights, especially privacy and free expression (but these are not absolutes)
    * The rule of law (no human rights without the rule of law)
    * Due process (no rule of law without due process)
    * Innovation, which is maximalised by protecting our human rights

    So with Twitter, we have some speech which is abusive, and breaks the law (not all, but some) and a threat of removing due process for both accused and accuser by placing the responsibility mainly into the hands of Twitter.

    At the same time, we are concerned that Section 127 is a threat to free expression on Twitter by criminalising speech with is merely offensive.

    With Internet filtering, the free expression of website publishers and the choice of end users is being undermined. You could add in a lack of rights for publishers whose sites are arbitrarily miscategorised. We have dangers to the rights of children when content is wrongly blocked and also practical problems when blocking doesn't address the core problems of sx education and talking to children.

    These are tough balances, but we can't shirk them.

    Hope that helps


  7. moth:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 06:40 PM

    Police advice should be to reply "FOAD" to trolls and block them. Just as millions of us have been doing online for years and years and years. It could be said that allowing repeated insults or threats on your timeline is your own fault for not BLOCKING. Newbies, huh? Abusive trolls are not a new phenomenon and eventually give up when they realise they are being ignored. You may also need a thicker skin.

    It is no more the responsibility of Twitter to enforce than it is for me to ensure that the side wall of my house doesn't attract graffiti.

  8. Don:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 02:15 AM

    @ Jim
    Thank you, that makes sense now :) with twitter, its making sure the law is being properly applied to protect the people its supposed to, (not the individual cases) and making sure everybody gets due process, and as a layman after reading the acts the Protection Against Harassment Act 1997,
    section 4(1) seem to be a fair law to cover on line abuse. as the intent, the context and the effect of the message are to be taken into account as well as the actual message.

    I find Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 is just plain scary, as it does not cover the effect on the intended recipient. the message does not have to be directed to cause an offence, and even tweeting something you just heard on the TV (Frankie Boyle) could cause an offence, with it just relying on the message alone, the judicial system could determine what "words" or "phrases" are unacceptable regardless of the target, the intent, the context and the effect of the message. A localized censorship of the Internet by an unelected body, is a truly frightening possibility. I fully support the repeal of 127

    With Internet filtering I understand the issue. thanks for taking the time to explain, sorry for the above ramblings, I just want to make sure that I understand correctly.

    thanks again Jim


  9. Jim Killock:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 02:39 PM

    @Don No problem at all!

  10. Sheogorath:
    Aug 04, 2013 at 03:29 PM

    moth said: Abusive trolls are not a new phenomenon and eventually give up when they realise they are being ignored.
    Abusive trolls are not a phenomenon at all, there's simply no such thing. You see, the people who abuse others on Twitter and vandalise memorial walls on Facebook are cyberbullies, not trolls. I'm an internet troll (on Yahoo! Answers) and I would very much appreciate it if people would please stop co-opting my title to use as a description for scum who never learned that manners aren't for use just in letters and face-to-face situations.
    Source(s): Doing it for the lulz since 2010.