Sunday, November 14, 2010

I guess the joke is on me

I had arguments with a few people on the Guardian Comment-Is-Free back in May shortly after Paul Chambers decided to appeal his conviction. I recall one person in particular telling me that Paul would be stupid to appeal his conviction. The decision was right and he would surely lose, he said. I said I'd be willing to bet £1000 that the appeal would succeed. I was that confident. Well, I guess the joke's on me. Now we are facing a very difficult situation indeed. The use of section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 to prosecute Twitterers making offhand remarks has been twice legitimized in court. Judge Jacqueline Davies in denying the appeal stated that Paul's tweet was "menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed." I am indeed alarmed, but not in the way she suggests. What do we do? Where do you draw the line?

I've decided on a bit of a legal thought experiment and I invite anyone to chime in with your views on this. It goes like this:

Suppose I place an update on Twitter saying "I've decided to blow up Heathrow Airport. I'll post a photo as proof once I've done it." And let's say that what I had in mind all along was to take a photo of Heathrow Airport (perhaps even an aerial shot from Google maps) and blow it up onto an oversized printout. Let's suppose I manage to do this and several hours or perhaps even days later I pose in front of my blown up photo and then post this to Twitter in a way that makes it obvious that it is connected to the earlier tweet. Have I caused menace? Is this a suitable application of section 127? It could be argued quite reasonably that I must be aware that this is couched in terms likely to cause menace, particularly with my close following of the Chambers case.

This is of course assuming I didn't get arrested before I had a chance to post my photo. I think it would be quite difficult to talk my way out of it in that case, unless I could prove my intentions by showing a piece of registered mail to myself setting it all out. Even still, does my intention here mitigate my action? I must surely have been aware that someone might feel menaced by my tweet. Would I have committed a crime? If so, would that be just? Thoughts please.


  1. Okay Matt so what's the answer? Does everybody storm city hall with pickets and start an uprising?

    All in the name of what? So people can call out bomb threats on the web?

  2. I mentioned my solution. I don't believe that domains being recognized as an establishment or organization or commercial entity should have such a low overhead for ownership. I think that the ease by which one can access the internet reduces the responsibility they have to the internet as a whole.

    Additionally, those who host publishing services like twitter should be held accountable for thier users actions.

    If somebody calls out bomb threats it should be the services responsibility to ban and otherwise moderate it.

    So if someone uploads child pornography to Facebook, Facebook as well as the users should be held accountable for thier actions.

    I'm from Canada, I don't know what it's like wherever you are from, but establishments need a license to serve liquor, and if their patrons step too far out of line or if they themselves step over the line, they lose thier license.

    I think people who publish to the internet should be held accountable for what they publish.

    So what's your solution? Protest? So what's his name can call out bomb threats and jokes on the internet?

    I don't see that as a good way to get along with government, in fact, I see it as a sure fire way to have the government come down harder on its citizens in the long run.

  3. No, I'm afraid you've missed the point. Nobody has made a bomb threat. The police and the prosecution did not believe this to be a bomb threat, otherwise they'd have charged under a different law specifically dealing with bomb hoaxes. This is a vaguely worded communications law. Chambers did not make a threat. If he had, he would have been banned by Twitter. Twitter's terms of use are very clear on the matter. Nobody saw this as an actual threat. Not the airport, not the police and not even the prosecution nor the judge.

    Of course people should not be permitted to make actual bomb threats, no matter what medium they use. People who publish on the internet are held accountable for what they publish. There are laws dealing with libel and with making threats, but as with anything you need to examine the context closely in order to determine the true meaning. I am from the US, where First Ammendment rights would have quashed this case immediately, but I live in Britain. Here we are protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but it is poorly implemented in this country and getting before a European Court is a very lengthy and expensive process.

    Your suggestions are not without merit but I don't see this as being relevant to the particular case. He did not, nor did he intend to, cause menace as described in this act of Parliament.

  4. No I didn't miss the point. I have already said they are making an example. That is what Government and Law Enforcement does. Jokes... Bomb Threats...

    What are you fighting for and how do you feel that you as a contributing member to the internet are making a difference?

  5. In other words... I feel bad taking it this far, but I believe that your fear mongering is actively supporting self-censorship whether you intended to or not.

  6. And if not, because I have no doubt that you have a lot to say. Actively supporting that someone have the right to call out a bomb threat whether it is believable or not, in the argumentative and angry manner which you have actively done influences others to do the same.

    There is no solution, just unrest. Or argumentative behavior.

  7. Okay. Thank you for commenting lots. It's difficult for me to reply when I'm at work because of content filtering. I have to dip into quota time.

    First, fear mongering is government's game not mine. I do not support the right to make a bomb threat. The CPS and two judges have defined the context of Paul's tweet as "the times in which we live and the constant threat of airport terrorism" essentially. But this is not a context, it is a constant. Therefore, the implication is that we must always submit to it. In other words, it is no longer acceptable to make a joke about airport terrorism anywhere it could be publicly overheard. That is not right. And even if it were, perhaps they might have given us a heads up first. I want to clear Paul because he meant no harm, but I also want at least clarification of what this law is for. It is being used very bluntly at the moment and in ways in which it was never intended. The solution is to get the law changed somehow. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. People are writing to their MPs and the defence have some contacts in the government. We'll go before the High Court and then the Supreme Court and finally the European Court if necessary. Bad laws are bad laws. They need to be changed.

    Bottom line: this was clearly never a serious threat and never intended to be taken as such.

  8. Incidentally, you may be unaware that the Crown Prosecution Service had originally been under the impression that section 127 was a strict liability offence. They would not have pursued it had they known they needed to show intent. Paul orginally pleaded guilty when told he had no choice, then a judge vacated the plea when DPP v Collins was pointed out.

  9. Okay fine... I am just mad because you don't listen. That's all... I do it all the time too... reply to a comment challenging someones thoughts or motives without really understanding where they are coming from or what they have previously said.

    That's fine. We all do it. It rubs me the wrong way when someone says I don't get it, ignores everything I just posted and continues to argue. That's it.

    I think it's a big waste and I don't let things go. So thank you for sharing your views.

  10. This is all great stuff, but I'd really like some commentary on the actual scenario I posed.

  11. If it helps... I may have mis-understood your motives.

  12. Likewise. Sorry for missing your point.

  13. It seems to me the answer to your scenario is whether you are required to prove your innocence or they are required to prove your guilt.

    To me what would be just in your example would be to be assumed innocent (ie that you were planning to blow up a photo) and the prosecutor to be required to prove your intention was otherwise. The way the law seems to be being applied is the other way round. All messages are assumed menacing unless you can prove that they aren't

    The purpose of a threat is to make someone do something they wouldn't have done otherwise so to prove someone is sending a threat should involve proving they are trying to change someone's action.

    PS I'm not an expert in the law - this is just what I feel is just and think people expect from the law

  14. Great comments guys. Thanks. Keep em coming.

    @MrGamma no hard feelings I hope.