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British authorities to set up guidelines for social media hate speech

Following numerous legal cases (or attempts to bring legal cases, in some situations) resulting from social media postings, the British Director of Public Prosecutions has announced the imminent release of official guidelines on when criminal charges should be brought against private individuals posting abusive comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

The announcement came from Keir Starmer, QC, as he announced that Welsh Premier League footballer Daniel Thomas would not be facing criminal charges for posting a homophobic message about British Olympic diver Tom Daley on Twitter.  Reporting that Thomas’ Tweet was both “not so grossly offensive that criminal charges need to be brought” and also “in essence, a one-off offensive Twitter message, intended for family and friends, which made its way into the public domain,” Starmer acknowledged that what was worthy of criminal prosecution and what wasn’t, in this arena, needed to be clarified moving forward.

Posted to Twitter following Daley and partner Pete Waterfield’s narrow missing out on a medal placement in this summer’s Olympic Games in London, Thomas’ message “was not intended to reach Mr Daley or Mr Waterfield [nor] part of a campaign, it was not intended to incite others and Mr Thomas removed it reasonably swiftly and has expressed remorse,” Starmer explained, and therefore needed no further action. However, he added, “The time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media… The recent increase in the use of social media has been profound. It is estimated that on Twitter alone there are 340 million messages sent daily. And the context in which this interactive social media dialogue takes place is quite different to the context in which other communications take place.”

Describing the problem of deciding what was and was not worthy of further action to be “very difficult” and “in… largely uncharted territory,” the DDP will, Starmer said, be issuing interim guidelines to help prosecutors decide whether or not criminal action is required in cases involving social media messages and bullying in the future. Simultaneously, the organization will be consulting with various experts – amongst them, “campaigners, media lawyers, academics, social media experts and law enforcement bodies,” Starmer explained – to create a more complete final set of guidelines “as fully informed as possible.”

However, even if Tweets, Facebook comments or other social media messages fall outside of the realm of criminal prosecution in future, Starmer said, that doesn’t mean that they’re okay to say: “”The fact that offensive remarks may not warrant a full criminal prosecution does not necessarily mean that no action should be taken,” he pointed out. “In my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.”

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