Britain to prosecute only “the most serious” Twitter and Facebook offenses

The types of posts police investigate on Facebook and Twitter are set to get a little clearer.

Britain’s public prosecutions body, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), hopes to publish by Christmas a set of guidelines for policing Facebook and Twitter.

In recent months, a string of high-profile cases led to U.K. residents being found guilty of posting malicious or “grossly offensive” content on the Web. Police officers are growing concerned over the number of these cases they’re asked to look into, reported Reuters.

Sending a “grossly offensive” message via a “public electronic communications network” is a criminal offence in Britain under the Communications Act 2003.

The CPS is holding talks with academics, media lawyers, bloggers, and officers. The guidelines are likely to be designed to work within the framework of existing law, rather than to push through new legislation.

The hope is that guidelines will help law enforcement agencies determine which cases are worth pursuing in the public interest. This should help free police up to “focus on the most serious,” said Andy Trotter, spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Trotter added that the push for clearer guidelines is not only out of principle, but also the result of the practical implications of having to “handle thousands of potential offences.”

This week alone, two men were sentenced over Facebook posts. Matthew Woods was given 12 weeks in prison for jokes about a missing five-year-old, while Azhar Ahmed was sentenced to 240 hours of community service after posting a message reading “all soldiers should die and go to hell” after six British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.

Liam Stacey was handed a prison sentence for posting racist comments about a soccer player. It took Paul Chambers over two years to clear his name after an ill-advised joke about blowing up an airport. The CPS decided not to prosecute a man who sent a homophobic tweet regarding Olympic diver Tom Daley, though it easily could have.

Following the latter case, Keir Starmer QC, the CPS director of public prosecutions, started to look into publishing guidelines for dealing with such cases. He’s now looking into whether Facebook and Twitter could be prompted to exercise more judgement in dealing with abuse and harassment on their networks to cut down on the number of cases making it to the court system.

Meanwhile, the Football Association (FA) is set to issue a new code of conduct for England national team soccer players following an incident involving Ashley Cole. The Chelsea defender was hit with the Association’s largest-ever social media fine after using a derogatory term to describe FA chiefs.

Still, FA President Prince William was happy to shake Cole’s hand and light-heartedly admonish him, as one does.

Photo of Keir Starmer via christianorguk/YouTube

Kris Holt

Kris Holt

Based in Montreal, Kris Holt has been writing about technology and web culture since 2010. He writes for Engadget and Tech News World, and his byline has also appeared in Paste, Salon, International Business Times, Mashable, and elsewhere.