Johnnie Melfour, a sixteen year old man from Driotwich, has today been convicted of trying to incite a riot on Facebook. I can't say I am familiar with the case, though I'm sure Matt Flaherty will be all over it soon – but one thing that did prick my interest was this, taken from the BBC's coverage on their news website...
“Chairman of the bench, Paul Vaughan, said the public needed to be made fully aware of the "legal perils" of the "unfettered use" of social-networking sites. “
That's a very interesting position he has arrived at – what does unfettered mean? How must we use social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter – what exactly are the rules?
Freedom of Expression is supposedly a right that we all enjoy here in Britain, and yes, it is true to say that with rights come responsibilities. We members of the public have to be careful how we exercise these rights, but it is also essential in a democracy that parliament is equally careful in how it restricts them. We can't have things left up to individual judges, or we end up with the utter farce of the Twitter Joke Trial again... If it is parliament's intention to restrict what we can do or say online, then there should be a properly visible, comprehensive debate in parliament between our representatives, conducted in the open so that we might hold them to account. Anything else is a sham.
Make no mistake, our politicians are not afraid of lumps of concrete or petrol bombs – they have police forces for dealing with issues like that. What the politicians fear in the public's hands are the far more dangerous weapons of truth, and the means to openly communicate it. Social media are enabling, empowering tools for the public – and we can't afford to allow them to be subject to arbitrary censorship, either through direct actions or through intimidation.
My message to the politicians and judiciary in our country then is succinct where social media are concerned – either state your case openly or back off.
If we allow the unregulated, drip drip censorship of the people to continue, then we are only going to have more pages here on this blog, and more charades like the Twitter Joke Trial.
Incidentally, I've personally met both high profile politicians and Mr. Paul Chambers, the defendant in the Twitter Joke Trial. Seriously, I'd rather have Paul in parliament than almost any of the current lot any day of the week, and twice on Tuesdays!