UK Politics

Plea for no new social-media laws

Twitter party Image copyright Getty Images

No new laws are needed to deal with social media - just a better understanding of the existing ones, a leading barrister has told peers.

John Cooper QC said stalking, threats to kill, sending obscene material and harassment were "age old" offences.

The fact that they were being committed on Twitter did not make any difference, he told the Lords communication committee.

It comes as ministers consider new laws to combat so-called "revenge porn".

Mr Cooper hit the headlines in 2010 when he represented a man put on trial for posting a joke bomb threat on Twitter.

His client, Paul Chambers, was found guilty in May 2010, but his conviction was quashed on appeal.

The QC told the committee he had been surprised at the poor understanding of the law among some Crown Prosecution Service lawyers, who had decided to press ahead with the case even though the police and others involved could see the offending tweet had been nothing more than a "crass joke".

'Anti-social behaviour'

He said social media was a "positive, inspiring arena" which was self-policing to a "high degree", but like society in general there were those who spoiled it for the rest.

But that did not mean new laws were needed to deal with it, he argued.

"The issue for me is not not so much the faulty nature of the existing law but the fact it's coming at us from all angles," he said, adding that it all needed to brought together in one "basket".

Image caption Paul Chambers arriving at court with comedians Stephen Fry and Al Murray in 2010

He also called for a campaign to educate the police and public on what constitutes "anti-social behaviour" on social media.

Police were being inundated with complaints from members of the public about comments posted on Twitter and other social media sites, which clearly were not in breach of the law, he told the peers.

On the subject of "revenge porn," where people upload sexually explicit content of ex-partners without their permission, he said it was already against the law to "send any form of obscene picture".

Gabrielle Guillemin, legal officer of international free speech campaign Article 19, also cautioned against "revenge porn" legislation.

She told peers: "We have seen a lot of legislation, for example in the United States, to address this particular issue, but you would question whether it is for the criminal law to get involved in what is very often, ultimately the fallout of failed relationships.

"And if civil remedies are not more appropriate to deal with these kinds of issues."

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has said the government is "very open" to changing the law to deal with "revenge porn".

He told MPs uploading sexually explicit material to the internet without the subject's consent is becoming a bigger issue in the UK.

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