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Watch what you tweet: How online troll crackdowns threaten freedom of speech

tweeting arrests court olympicsYou may have seen the news about the Twitter troll in the UK who was arrested for sending an abusive message to diver and gold medal hopeful, Tom Daley. After Daley failed to win a medal, a 17-year-old boy sent a malicious tweet which read, “You let your dad down I hope you know that.”

Daley’s father died of cancer last year. The boy responsible for the malicious tweet was issued with a harassment warning. Another arrest was made just a couple of days later because of a homophobic tweet, also aimed at Daley. The 28-year-old man arrested told police that he had left his phone unattended and someone had used his Twitter account as a prank.

Troll crackdown

These are not isolated incidents. The UK government is cracking down on Internet trolls. Back in March, after the footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch during a match, a student was arrested and subsequently jailed for 56 days for posting offensive and racist comments on Twitter. He served half his sentence.

One of the most high-profile cases concerned Paul Chambers, who sent a joke tweet back in January 2010 threatening to blow up an airport because he was annoyed at the cancellation of his flight. He was arrested by anti-terror police, who searched his home and confiscated his laptop, desktop computer, and mobile phone. He was convicted, fined, and even lost his job as a consequence. His first appeal was rejected but he has now finally won a high-court challenge.

How can you go to jail for trolling?

The law being enforced here in the United Kingdom is section 127 of the Communications Act, 2003 which is concerned with electronic messages which are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”

In effect, sending abusive tweets and other electronic messages is being treated the same way as if the perpetrator had said them in the street, face to face. But it’s not the same.

Naturally, the police are not expected to arrest everyone who makes an offensive comment. The courts are supposed to apply some common sense, but if they can charge someone like Paul Chambers for an obvious joke, then it’s clear they aren’t applying enough of it.

As a UK citizen, I’m seriously concerned about this. I don’t want the police and courts wasting time and money on this kind of stuff. I won’t feel any safer because a malicious tweeter was fined or sent to prison. There are genuinely dangerous criminals out there, let’s focus on them.

Watch what you tweet

It’s not just UK citizens who have to watch what they say on Twitter. You might not be arrested for a tweet in the US, but you can certainly get fired, even if you are a 20-year veteran of CNN. You also need to be careful not to attract the attention of Homeland Security or you may not get into the country. Two British teenagers tweeted a couple of stupid jokes and were flagged as a threat. When they landed in L.A. they were questioned, searched, handcuffed, and kept under armed guard before being sent home 12 hours later.

twitter site arrestsThen there’s the case of Guy Adams and his criticism of NBC’s Olympic coverage, which led to Twitter suspending his account. It has since been unsuspended, but the whole affair was pretty embarrassing for NBC and Twitter. There have actually been several Twitter-related problems with the Olympics as rounded up by The Wall Street Journal.

What about freedom of speech?

Is freedom of speech an all or nothing deal? Is there actually any harm in posting opinions and comments online?

I always liked the famous Evelyn Beatrice Hall quote (often wrongly attributed to Voltaire): “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Censorship seems like a slippery slope. Even if you start off targeting racist abuse or incitement to hatred it can quickly lead to pointless arrests. There is a distinction between expressing an opinion and sending a threatening or abusive message, but where exactly is the line?

If we’re going to empower security forces to catch potential threats, then we also need them to apply some common sense. Don’t arrest and punish people who are clearly not a threat. Maybe the problem is that saying something, no matter how vile or distasteful, should not be considered a crime.

Anonymity and privacy

Some people think the argument comes down to whether you should be allowed to post anonymously. No doubt, people can be empowered by anonymity and will often post things that they wouldn’t say if their identity was clear. However, many people seem to be happy enough to post all kinds of offensive comments without hiding their identity.

facebook avatar social media arrestsShould social media sites or even Internet service providers be compelled to provide details about their users if they post offensive comments or send threatening messages? Don’t they have a duty to protect the privacy of users? It’s a thorny issue.

It was recently established that anything you post publicly on Twitter can be used against you in a court of law. Law enforcement can access your tweets, even deleted tweets, without a warrant.

Grow a thicker skin

Look at any forum or comment section or at social media posts and you’ll find a wealth of offensive nonsense. As a writer, I’ve grown used to offensive comments and even abusive emails. Perhaps I had already developed a thick skin from playing first-person shooters where abusive language and insults fly thick and fast.

There should be a mechanism for flagging offensive behavior and a process for banning the people responsible. Generally speaking, there already is; it just isn’t very effective against determined trolls. There may be a better way to deal with them, but I’m certain it isn’t getting the police involved. How about just turning the other cheek, growing a thicker skin, and rising above it?

What do you think? Post a (friendly) comment or I’ll set the UK police on you.

UPDATE 8/10/2012: Changed quote attribution to Evelyn Beatrice Hall not Voltaire, she penned the quote talking about Voltaire’s attitude to free speech.