by Magnus Shaw
In the early hours of this morning Dorset police arrested a 17-year-old boy. It's alleged he sent a tweet to Olympic diver Tom Daly which read "You let your dad down I hope you know that." Daly had finished fourth in the Men's Synchronized 10m Diving competition. His father died from a brain tumour in 2011.
The tweet is undeniably cruel, foolish and a disgrace. But is it illegal? No charges have been brought, but the boy is being held on suspicion of making malicious communications.
This law forbids the "sending or delivery of letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety"- by that standard, an offence has been committed. It was also committed many thousands of times throughout the UK in the last 24 hours. Read the comments under a YouTube clip, watch people arguing on Facebook - if messages which cause anxiety or distress are criminal, a crime wave of epic proportions is in progress.
So why did the police choose to act in this instance, ignoring the huge volume of other aggressive communications across the web? Of course, I can't say for sure - but I imagine they were motivated by the high profile of the recipient, the association with the Olympic Games and the public outcry (on Twitter) which followed the original tweet. Although these factors are not supposed to sway law enforcement decisions, they are the only points distinguishing @riley69's message from all the others. Indeed, as it contained no obscenity or threats, it could be argued it was less problematic from a legal standpoint.
In truth, the authorities are floundering in their attempts to regulate social media. Immediately after last year's riots, David Cameron proudly announced he would introduce powers to switch off Twitter in areas of unrest, thereby proving he had little or no understanding of the internet's mechanisms, let alone those of social media.
Just a few days ago, a man called Paul Chambers walked free from the Royal Courts of Justice having won his appeal against conviction for sending a tweet. During the horrendous snow last winter, Chambers posted: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!'" Quite obviously, in a world beset with the fear of terrorism, communications about destroying airports are unwise. But just as obviously, Paul had no intention of violence, he was just frustrated. Prosecuting Chambers was not only a massive waste of time, it was also very expensive for the public purse and made the justice system appear petty, out of touch and daft.
So why are the police so keen to move against tweeters? I'm sure they'd deny this, but I'd suggest they are finding it easy. After all, Twitter is a public platform. It actually exists to display the thoughts and quips of its members, therefore monitoring its content couldn't be much easier. It's certainly less challenging than watching for burglars or street robbers. And without wishing to drift towards conspiracy theories, the authorities are increasingly nervous about powerful communication networks over which they have little control. Don't forget, the Government intends to monitor and record all your digital activity within a year. Invite The Man into the digital world and watch how rapid and rabid prohibition becomes.
It's also worth noting that an MP bemoaning the multi-cultural nature of the Olympic opening ceremony attracted no attention from the cops, despite his tweet being transparently offensive and prejudiced.
Does Twitter need policing? Possibly, but not like this. I would be absolutely delighted to see racist, homophobic or any other kind of bullying highlighted and pulled from the micro-blogging service, but in my experience it often is. Not by uniformed officers, driving through the night to drag the perpetrators from their beds, but by myriad users with the maturity and intelligence to shun infantile and unacceptable tweeting. Twitter also provides a "block and report" function so the company itself can be made aware of any abuse on its servers. If these channels are not sufficiently effective, then they should be strengthened. Perhaps a team of moderating users could be recruited to maintain good practice across the site. This works particularly well on the larger forums and there's no reason it wouldn't thrive on Twitter. Sometimes self-regulation does work. Just look what the young man from Dorset tweeted immediately after his insult:
"I'm sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its (sic) the olympics I'm just annoyed we didn't win I'm sorry tom accept my apology."
Or perhaps we could embrace absolute freedom of speech, whereby anybody can say anything to anybody else without fear of reprisals. This would level the playing field, and eliminate the notion of "tweet crime" but we'd need to develop very strong stomachs.
The velocity at which the internet and social media are evolving stands in stark contrast to the flabby, confused and sluggish nature of real-world processes. If we want legal protections to accompany virtual interactions, existing laws and policing policies are not up to the task.
For a relatively new phenomenon, social media has become so significant, so quickly, legislators have simply failed to keep pace. So we still need to decide, as a society, where its boundaries lie and how we treat those who cross them. Clearly, however we regulate these platforms, allowing an arbitrary and fickle police force to arrest and charge users at will, is nothing more than heavy-handed, misguided and ultimately ineffective.