Monday, April 16, 2012

No freedom of speech in the UK II

In October 2011, UK Tweeter Olly Cromwell posted this tweet:

Which cunt lives in a house like this. Answers on a postcard to #bexleycouncil
For posting that, he had his house raided by police, and his computers, mobile phones, and digital cameras seized. He was charged with sending "grossly offensive malicious communications", and has been convicted. The government is asking for a sentence of 6 months imprisonment.

There's no question that that tweet contains offensive language. But 45 days per letter of the word in question? He wouldn't get that if he'd said it in the street (he is unlikely to even have been prosecuted). But apparently bad language is so much worse on the internet.

This isn't an isolated case. Teenager Azhar Ahmed is facing similar charges, not for bad language, but for questioning the UK's war in Afghanistan (a topic deemed "grossly offensive" by the British establishment, especially when raised by a Muslim). Its all made possible by a telecommunications law which extended provisions originally designed to outlaw obscene phone calls to any digital communication. According to the relevant prosecution guidelines, the question of offensiveness isn't up to contemporary community standards, but "whether the message would cause gross offence to those to whom it relates... who need not be the recipients". So it doesn't just outlaw using the internet or other networks for harassment (which is well-covered by other law anyway), or to directly insult people, but saying anything which might potentially offend anybody. Which, as we've already seen, includes speaking out on controversial political topics which the government would rather not hear about. Basically that one tiny definitional shift - telephone to telecommunications network - has effectively abolished freedom of speech in the digital public square.

(For the curious: no, this can't happen here. Our relevant law applies strictly to telephones, and our definition of offensiveness is based on community standards which include a respect for freedom of speech. Let's make sure it stays that way).