Social media laws to be discussed in wake of prosecutions

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Starmer: "Chilling effect on free speech"

New guidelines for policing social media are to be discussed to avoid a "chilling effect" on free speech, the most senior prosecutor in England and Wales has said.

Director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer QC told the BBC that the right to be offensive "has to be protected".

His comments came in the wake of two prosecutions for offensive postings.

Matthew Wood was jailed on Monday for posting comments about missing girl April Jones.

The teenager's 12-week prison sentence was followed by the prosecution of Azhar Ahmed, 20, who was given 240 hours community service after writing an offensive post about dead British soldiers.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will invite lawyers and academics, as well as representatives from social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, to be part of the discussions.

The new measures are expected to be announced before Christmas.

'Grossly Offensive'

A freedom of information request revealed that there were 2,347 investigations after complaints regarding posts on social media in 2010. This number rose to 2,490 in 2011 - about 50 different cases across the UK each week.

Mr Starmer said prosecutors were finding it difficult to work within the existing law.

"The emerging thinking is that it might be sensible to divide and separate cases where there's a campaign of harassment, [or] cases where there's a credible and general threat, and prosecute in those sorts of cases.

"And put in another category communications which are, as it were, merely offensive or grossly offensive.

"[It] doesn't mean the second category are ring-fenced form prosecution, but it does I think enable us to think of that group in a slightly different way."

Another suggestion is whether social media sites should be asked to improve their moderation procedures to ensure offensive content is more swiftly removed.

Some police forces contacted by BBC Newsnight were concerned that resources were being wasted on too many petty rows online.

Policing comments

However Ralph Cowling, co-founder of music social network ThisIsMyJam, told the BBC he had concerns about such an approach, particularly for smaller networks like his.

"There's no way with a team of four people we could monitor the hundreds of thousands of posts that go up every week," he said.

"Ultimately, we wouldn't want to - it's not our job to police individual comments. What we're here to do is to suggest community guidelines and have the community discuss that between themselves."

Mr Starmer said the new guidelines would enable relevant authorities to use remedies other than criminal prosecution to address instances of offensive activity.

"The threshold for prosecution has to be high," he added.

"We live in a democracy, and if free speech is to be protected there has to be a high threshold.

"People have the right to be offensive, they have the right to be insulting, and that has to be protected."