The DPP “Interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media” were published yesterday. The guidance within seems to be, on first read, reasonable and sensible.
Thanks to the ever dogged and diligent @flayman, we can now report that the 19 year old man arrested by police for posting an image of a burning poppy to his Facebook account has now been bailed by Kent police pending further investigations.
Official statement from Kent police here:
Follow the story on Twitter on #Poppycock
Kent police are reporting that the 19 year old poster was arrested “on suspicion of an offence under the malicious communications act”. It is unclear at this stage whether CPS plan to charge under either s127 of the Communications Act 2003 or the Malicious Communications Act 1988.
The this is Kent website reports today:
“POLICE have tonight arrested an Aylesham man after a picture of a burning poppy was posted online.
Kent Police say the man has been held on the evening of Remembrance Sunday on suspicion of malicious telecommunications after the image of the poppy was posted on a social networking site.
The suspect is tonight in police custody awaiting interview.”
My goodness, but the screen resolution of the iPhone 5 is quite something to behold.
I took a couple screen shots of Twitter to show how good it really is.
Even the tiny text, like the date and time is so clearly visible. Astonishing stuff really, on such a small screen. Of course, for their protection, I had to redact the actual home address of the gay couple which Nick Griffin posted.
Of course, I’m kidding. The real question is: will the police arrest Nick Griffin, or is policing of online speech only applicable to us plebs?
Canadian teenager Amanda Todd is a salutary lesson in the darker side of social media. Following a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment online, and at her various schools, the 15 year old took her own life.
Amanda had been tricked into showing her breasts during a webcam session with somebody who she thought she could trust. A year later a Facebook user attempted to blackmail her using a still from that webcam session. When she refused, the image was published online and became the subject of a sustained bullying campaign.
Before she died, Amanda recorded a heartbreaking video describing her brutal experience. It is a painful thing to watch, which describes her experience of depression, self harm, rape, assault and attempted suicide. I would urge everybody with teenage children to discuss her story with their children, lest they too become victims of even a fraction of what she suffered. If appropriate, make them watch her video:
I’m not ashamed to say that I cried watching her video.
This is the power of cyberbullying, and here’s how it works: large groups of people in a position of strength attack those more vulnerable than them. They do this for their own satisfaction, out of pure sociopathic sport, or a sense of superiority.
And sometimes, they do it out of moral outrage.
In the past few hours, an image purporting to be that of Amanda Todd’s naked corpse has emerged online. Undoubtedly it is a fake, undoubtedly it is the work of the worst kind of trolls imaginable, and it is certainly a direct violation of the various child pornography laws in most countries.
Teenagers are basically idiots. We’ve all been one, and most of us will remember the need to be accepted and the need to show bravado, self confidence, swagger. To have the arrogant “I don’t care” attitude that seems really cool when you’re about 15. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mix well with social media, and there have been one or two young social media users posting links to the Amanda Todd images, and some even making unsavoury comments. No doubt, these kids are idiots and a parent somewhere needs to have strong words with them. Maybe even take their internet away for a few days whilst they think about what they have done.
Into the scene marches the Anonymous hacking collective. Our shadowy heroes have taken on large corporate interests, oppressive governments, revealed secrets for the benefit of mankind. They are the good guys, and they know it. Today’s target: a bunch of idiot teenagers who posted some bad links and some tasteless posts on Twitter.
During the course of today, several young boys and girls have been targetted by messages from numerous Anonymous activists. Their addresses and phone numbers have been posted online. They have been described as “paedos” and “not human” by our erstwhile heroes. These young kids have been cyberbullied. In retaliation for their bad taste posts about another cyberbullying incident.
Welcome to the age of the lynch mob ladies and gentlemen. Lock your doors and shutter your windows. And don’t step out of line.
The age of the mob is coming. We are in danger of entering a period of history where the angry mob will have real political and legal power, backed by the police and the courts.
And the mob is everywhere. You’re sitting next to them on the train, they are your friends on Facebook, your followers on Twitter. Sometimes, you are even part of the mob yourself. Most of the time they appear to be fairly ordinary people, but something will make them snap. Before you know it they are baying for the head of social media user [x] on a spike. Occasionally they will actually light the torches, round up a lynch mob and set out to inflict some mob justice on their target. Just like they did with Azhar Ahmed and Matthew Woods.
The police are rightly concerned about the public order problems which can arise from social media, either by way of incitement posts, or by angry lynch mobs which seek to extract revenge from somebody who they regard as so offensive that they need to be chased down and hung from a branch of the nearest tree. The police response to this has been to legitimise the mob’s reaction by arresting their target and charging them with the criminal offence of offending the mob. The courts then duly convict these people and take into account the actions of the mob in sentencing. Sometimes they even send these modern day witches to jail. Thank heavens we no longer have trial by ducking stool.
Forgive me if you think I’m being melodramatic here, but I would have thought that the duty of the police and the courts should be to prosecute those who seek to practice vigilantism, and to protect the rights of the individual to speak without harassment from others. I would also suggest that to prosecute people just because an angry mob agitated against them, in addition to putting the power into the hands of the angry mob, is also making vigilante tactics effective. It is likely to result in an increase of such public order problems and an increase in the number of complaints made to police over social media posts.
It seems to me that the most effective thing the police can do next time somebody reports a Facebook post to the police is say “Sorry sir, that isn’t a criminal matter. There’s nothing we can do about that”.
And next time somebody rounds up a lynch mob and tries to get to somebody for what they’ve posted online, the police should immediately arrest the ringleaders. This might actually send a message that such tactics are not effective. At the moment, all the police, CPS and courts are doing is rewarding that kind of behaviour.
Just a thought. You might want to consider that in your deliberations, Mr Starmer.
It is an uncomfortable feeling to go into court knowing that there is no possible hope of a positive outcome; knowing that you are there because a man has been convicted of a criminal offence for publicly expressing a view which others disagree with. The best outcome we could hope for today was a lenient sentence, but many would share my view that any conviction at all in the case of Azhar Ahmed was an unjustified interference with every British citizen’s right to freedom of expression.
Azhar Ahmed wrote a short Facebook status update post objecting to the war in Afghanistan, highlighting the deaths of innocent civillians and ending with a statement that “all soldiers should die and go to hell”. It was an angry outburst, objecting to the injustices of war and the horrors which inevitably follow it. His post was on the site for roughly twenty minutes before he removed it in response to complaints from other Facebook users, who said that they knew soldiers who had died in Afghanistan. He even sent messages of apology to some users who had complained directly to him.
In September Azhar Ahmed was convicted of sending a “grossly offensive” message via a public electronic communications network contrary to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Today in court he was sentenced to a 2 year community & supervision order, 50 hours high level activity and a further 240 hours community service and £300 costs, plus a number of other conditions. The judge’s sentencing remarks can be found here.
Throughout the trial it has been abundantly clear that the far right have been pushing for Azhar Ahmed’s imprisonment. After Azhar Ahmed removed his post from Facebook, screenshots of the post continued to be distributed around the internet, and a copy even found its way into the hands of the mother of a soldier recently killed in Afghanistan, who then reported the post to the police. Far right groups have attended every hearing in this case, filling the public gallery in the court. Today, there was much muttering from the back of court about Matthew Woods who was yesterday sentenced to 12 weeks imprisonment for posting off colour jokes about April Jones to Facebook.
As sentencing was read out, the public gallery erupted. There was great deal of shouting and a number of people walked noisily out of court. Some people shouted about the 12 week sentence handed to Matthew Woods yesterday. Clearly his sentence did not please the people in the gallery at all.
And yet, whilst politicians on both sides of the house appease the nationalists and the far right by saying they “understand their concerns”, whilst numerous far right blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts continue to operate protected by freedom of expression, this 20 year old British Asian man, who posted an angry political outburst for all of 20 minutes before deleting it, has been convicted of criminal offence for being “grossly offensive”.
This afternoon, I was interviewed on BBC Asian Network. One of my fellow interviewees, Amjad Malik QC, expressed the concern that Azhar Ahmed’s Facebook post had the potential to push people into Islamicism or far right extremism in response to his words. He felt that such posts should be criminalised in order to protect the wider Muslim community. To me, this is indicative of a besieged community. Should the Muslim community limit the speech of their own young people out of fear of aggravating the far right? This can’t be right, surely? Is it not the duty of the law to stand up to extremists of all stripes for the protection of the general public? Isn’t that the definition of “public interest”?
There’s something out of balance here.
Matthew Woods was yesterday sentenced to 12 weeks imprisonment for sending a “grossly offensive” message contrary to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. He had posted a number of bad taste jokes on the subject about April Jones to Facebook, the missing 5 year old girl. It is said that he got the idea for the jokes from the website Sickipedia.
News reports are conflicting over the precise sequence of events. Some say that he posted the jokes to his own wall, some that that these were later copied to a Facebook April Jones support group, or that he had posted the jokes directly to an April Jones Facebook group.
Following his posts, around 50 people visited his home in attempt to inflict reprisals upon him, but he was apparently not at home at the time. He was subsequently arrested “for his own protection” at another address. He was subsequently charged under s127 and pleaded guilty to the charge.
I am informed that it was a police decision to charge, and Mr Woods pleaded guilty immediately on advice from his solicitor. The case was then passed to the CPS with a guilty plea already in place.
The case came to court within a matter of days of the original posts, and Woods was swiftly convicted and immediately sentenced. His 12 week sentence represents 50% of the maximum available under s127, the judge being unable to sentence Woods to a longer sentence because of his early guilty plea.
The following open letter is now available to sign at http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/the-ministry-of-justice-uk-discuss-the-conviction-of-azhar-ahmed – please sign it.
We the undersigned would like to express our dismay at the guilty finding in the case of Azhar Ahmed which was tried at Huddersfield Magistrate’s Court on 14th September 2012
We do not recognise District Judge Jane Goodwin’s finding that Azhar Ahmed’s Facebook post was “grossly offensive”. Whilst we fully accept that Ahmed’s post may have been disagreeable and even upsetting to some who read it, we are convinced that Ahmed was doing no more than exercising his democratic right to express a political opinion in an “open and just multi-cultural society”. We do not accept the characterisation of his post as grossly offensive such that his words constitute a criminal offence under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.
We would direct the reader to the comments of the Lord Chief Justice in reference to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 in his judgement on Chambers v DPP 2012 at the High Court:
The 2003 Act did not create some newly minted interference with the first of President Roosevelt’s essential freedoms – freedom of speech and expression. Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished by this legislation.
We submit that to apply section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 in the way it has been applied in this judgement would be incompatible with Azhar Ahmed’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights Article 10. To paraphrase John Cooper QC in Chambers v DPP: section 127 as interpreted in the Ahmed judgment of 14th September is incompatible with Article 10, and also the ruling in Chambers v DPP 2012.
Finally, we would like to express our support of, and fellowship with, anyone who believes that their freedom of expression has been interfered with, or limited by, the court finding Azhar Ahmed guilty at Huddersfield Magistrate’s Court on 14th September 2012.
* The following para was removed:
Additionally we would note that Azhar Ahmed appears to have been the victim of a far right hate campaign, in that his comments were copied, pasted and redistributed amongst nationalist and/or racist activists. We would point to the witness statements of Mr Samir Ahmed and Craig Oakland which appear to indicate a sustained campaign of harassment which bears all the hallmarks of a far right intimidation exercise. We doubt strongly that Azhar Ahmed’s case would have ever come to court were it not for these activities.