Offensive tweeters may be spared from prosecution

social media

Users of social networks could find themselves in court for retweeting or resending messages, according to new guidelines issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Messages that harass, threaten or break court orders will be "robustly" prosecuted, it has been claimed. That said, other messages, even those thought to be offensive, may not be prosecuted under these new guidelines.

"The first group will be prosecuted robustly whereas the second group will only be prosecuted if they cross a high threshold," said Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions.

"A prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest if the communication is swiftly removed, blocked, not intended for a wide audience or not obviously beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in a diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression."

But the DPP will not tell social networks how to edit or moderate comments. Instead, it will take into account how fast an offensive comment was taken down.

"We want the interim guidelines to be as fully informed as possible, which is why we held a series of roundtable discussions and meetings with Twitter, Facebook, Liberty and other stakeholders, police and regulators, victim groups, academics, journalists and bloggers, lawyers and sports organisations ahead of drafting them," said Starmer.

"I would now encourage everyone with an interest in this matter to give us their views by responding to the public consultation."

The guidelines follow a number of cases over the past two years involving social networks. Doncaster accountant Paul Chambers, who was found guilty of sending a 'menacing' tweet, later saw his conviction quashed. He said afterwards that he did not believe anyone would take his "silly joke" seriously.

Javed Khan, chief executive of Victim Support, said the new distinction between credible threats and offence was "sorely needed".

"Victims tell us sustained and vindictive targeting on social media can leave long-lasting emotional and psychological scars so we warmly welcome clarification on how prosecutors will deal with online threats or harassment," said Khan.

"In particular we welcome the guideline which makes a prosecution more likely if a victim is specifically targeted and this has a significant impact on them."

Kahn said that his organisation would "watch how the interim guidelines are used with interest and will respond to them in detail during the consultation period."

Rene Millman

Rene Millman is a freelance writer and broadcaster who covers cybersecurity, AI, IoT, and the cloud. He also works as a contributing analyst at GigaOm and has previously worked as an analyst for Gartner covering the infrastructure market. He has made numerous television appearances to give his views and expertise on technology trends and companies that affect and shape our lives. You can follow Rene Millman on Twitter.