Caroline Criado-Perez statement on today’s sentencing

Caroline Criado Perez has issued a statement on Twitter with regards to today’s sentencing of Isabella Sorely and John Nimmo:

Statement on the twitter sentencing today: It’s hard to get my thoughts together at the moment as my stomach is churning – hearing the outcome has made me realise how tense and anxious I have been feeling. But here goes. I did not attend the sentencing as I didn’t feel I could cope with being in court with them – and I didn’t feel sure that the judge would understand how terrifying and scarring the whole experience has been for me, which again is not something I could face. I feel immensely relieved that the judge clearly has understood the severity of the impact this abuse has had on me. The damages that have been awarded to me will be going to charity. When this has all sunk in I will decide which charity. I hope this statement covers enough for the media. I don’t feel in a fit state to be giving lots of interviews at the moment, and as there are still other investigations on-going, I am still somewhat constrained in what I can say. Thanks for understanding.

Caroline Criado-Perez has repeatedly requested to not be @ messaged or included in Twitter discussions of the case.

Sorely and Nimmo imprisoned over abusive tweets

Isabella Sorely and John Nimmo have been sentenced to custodial sentences today under section  127 of the communications act in relation to abusive/threatening tweets sent to Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy.

Sorely has received a 12 week sentence, whilst Nimmo received 8 weeks.

One of Sorely’s messages read:

“I’ve only just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried!!”

Nimmo’s messages made references to rape, with one message reading

“I will find you :)”.

The two were also ordered to pay her a total of £800 compensation. Caroline Criado-Perez said that she plans to give the damages to charity.

More here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25886026

Sentencing remarks here.

The sentencing today follows the news yesterday that police have now decided to charge another Twitter user, Peter Nunn, 33 over tweets sent to Stella Creasy.

Police charge 2 with section 127 offences over tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez

The news has just broken that CPS have charged Isabella Sorley, 23, from Newcastle, and John Nimmo, 25, from South Shields with an offence under Section 127 of The Communications Act 2003 over tweets sent to Caroline Criado-Perez.

Caroline Criado-Perez became the victim of sustained abuse from various Twitter accounts following her successful campaign to have a women featured on the new design for the £10 note. As result of the abuse she received, Criado-Perez also launched a campaign demanding that Twitter provide a “report abuse” button and provide more support for users who were targetted by trolls or were the subject of twitterstorms. This second campaign resulted in a further campaign of abuse and threats. It is unclear from today’s news whether the 2 charged today were involved in either of these campaigns of abuse.

The CPS and police also investigated another user who had sent abuse and threats to Criado-Perez, but concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge. Another further user is still being investigated by police, and may yet be charged.

Labour MP Stella Creasy was also the recipient of “offensive” messages from yet another user under investigation, however the CPS concluded that “although there was sufficient evidence that an offence had been committed under section 127 of the Communications Act, it would not be in the public interest to prosecute”

More information here.
http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/dec/16/two-charged-caroline-criado-perez-tweets?CMP=twt_fd

On stopping the sexualised abuse sent to women.

Well, this all seems like a bit of a no-brainer really doesn’t it? If a Twitter user sends a rape “joke” to a woman, that’s deliberately offensive and can be incredibly hurtful. Such users should be banned and if possible prosecuted.

Of course, rape threats are already a criminal offence and against Twitter’s Terms of Service, so such users can and should be dealt with by Twitter and/or the law.

Similarly, a user who embarks on an individual campaign of harrassment is caught both by provisions in criminal law and by Twitter’s rules.

However things get a bit more tricky once you start dealing just with individual offensive messages. The criminal law has had many attempts at regulating such speech, but the negative impact on freedom of speech always outweighs any potential benefits.

Of course, rape jokes are not on, and sending this kind of vile misogynist content to someone can be deeply hurtful to the recipient. Many (if not most) women will have personal experience of real sexual assault, and this kind of language can trigger memories of such events. This can be immensely damaging and can impact on women’s ability to communicate freely online.

The difficulty comes in defining what is unacceptably offensive. To the victims of terrorist atrocities, messages which make jokes about terrorism can be very upsetting. So what about people who joke about blowing up an airport, or make jokes about soldier’s t-shirts do we sanction that kind of content?

What about the parents of soldiers killed on active service, don’t they deserve our respect? Shouldn’t we be supporting our armed forces, not insulting them?

“How about if we just ban tweets which joke about sexual assault?” I hear you say.  Well… we could do that, but don’t we run the risk of stifling all discussion of sexual assault online if we do so?

See the problem is, no matter how hurtful or damaging an individual act of speech may be to another individual, we should be very wary of seeking to regulate offensive speech. We can deal with threats and harassment, but in trying to stop people being offensive to one another we will create a collateral damage effect on everybody’s right to speak freely. The price is simply too high.

In the words of Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge:

“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.”

The price of regulating offensive speech is, in my view, too high. The best thing we can hope for is to provide women (and indeed men) with the right tools to protect themselves from online abuse should it occur.

Many of the women subjected to attacks online have been victims of “twitter mobs”, where multiple individual users all compete with one another to see who can be most offensive to the recipient. In some cases, users even carelessly stray into posting criminal content. This is what Caroline Criado-Perez has been subjected in the past few days. Maybe if these users had been stopped before they even posted, they would never have ended up committing a criminal offence.

This is why I support Matt Flaherty’s proposal to include a “Panic Mode” to protect users from twittermob campaigns of abuse, which I believe will both protect women, and help to discourage such Twitter mobs, making Twitter a nicer place to be for everybody, and preventing trolls from carelessly subjecting other users to criminal harassment.

By the way: for a balancing view, you should probably also read my sister’s take on this.

Bomb threats sent to female journalists

Police are currently investigating bomb threats sent to several prominent female journalists.

Hadley Freeman of the Guardian, Grace Dent, a columnist for the Independent, Catherine Mayer, Europe editor of Time magazine, Sara Lang, a social media manager at American non-profit AARP and journalist and doctoral student Kate Maltby all received the same message from anonymous twitter accounts. Other users may also have received similar messages.

From the tone of the messages, and the fact they give detailed times, it would seem likely that they are covered by bomb hoax provisions in the 1977 Criminal Law Act.

Twitter and Report Abuse Buttons – Pitfalls and Solutions

Following the unpleasant trolling & abuse directed at Caroline Criado-Perez in the past few days, there has been much talk of how Twitter deals with abusive posts. An online petition has been created asking Twitter to add a “Report Abuse” button which is quick and easy to use.

There are one or two problems with this campaign, which I’d like to just discuss below.

The button already exists

This is obviously the biggest problem with this campaign. A “Report Abuse” button already exists and it clearly hasn’t prevented these abusive tweets directed at Caroline Criado Perez.

The free speech issue

I need to be clear here. I don’t think anybody is arguing that being able to direct abuse and threats at an individual is in any way protected free speech, but one has to be very careful that any system put in place to control abusive messages does not also end up impacting free speech as a form of “collateral damage”.

This isn’t a fantastical notion. Section 127 of the Communications Act was originally created to deal with abusive messages sent to telephone operators. Up until 2011, the go-to precedent for the use of this law was a case dealing with racial abuse. However, in the past few years, this law has been used to successfully prosecute people for making jokes, and in at least one case for making political statements against the war in Afghanistan.

With this in mind, we have to be careful that any measures we pursue in order to control this sort of unpleasant abuse and oppression online, do not themselves become tools of abuse and oppression. An easy to use “Report Abuse” control with an automated response would be open to abuse by all and sundry, and is unlikely to yield the results the petitioners are hoping for.

Proportionality and Scalability

If Twitter makes reporting abuse too easy, this won’t lead to rise in quality abuse reports, it will simply result in the general rise in all abuse reports. Including junk reports such as malicious attempts to get user accounts suspended, and “outraged of Tunbridge Wells” type complaints. Bear in mind that Twitter also needs to deal with live real time credible threats to a person, cases of child grooming and posting of illegal images. Twitter needs to have a system for triaging abuse complaints, such that it deals with urgent and serious real world threats first. One way of doing so is making sure that abuse reports require a degree of human input on behalf of the reporter. This article purportedly from a Facebook moderator gives an idea of the kind of problems created by unwarranted abuse reports. I’m sure nobody would like to think that an active child grooming session, or a posting of a stolen selfie was not dealt with by Twitter because moderation staff were too busy dealing with idiotic trolls instead.

The Education Problem

There are a whole host of reasons why trolls are a routine feature of daily life on social media. Twitter is a platform which gives everybody a voice. The price of that is that the bellends get a voice too. I’m sure we would all agree that there’s nothing in principle wrong with the idea of giving everybody a voice; the issue is that some people’s heads are filled with rubbish, and when they get a voice, they vomit that rubbish all over the internet.

Stopping people saying those things won’t stop them thinking it. It won’t make the world a more pleasant place. It won’t address the underlying problems, and in trying the silence those voices, we create a framework in which we can expect to silence voices which we don’t want to hear. In my view, that’s quite a dangerous place to be intellectually.

We need to be addressing people’s underlying attitudes, and teaching people to treat each other with respect and understanding online. Social media can be dehumanising and disinhibiting. This can bring the worst out in people. Any measures we take need to educate users and seek to change underlying attitudes & behaviours.

What can we do?

Twitter’s “block” button is a symbolic representation of Twitter’s ethos: users have the right to say whatever they like, but you don’t have to listen to it if you don’t want to. It seems to me that this approach might be the best approach to take in dealing with the kinds of problems Caroline Criado-Perez suffered this week. Here’s a couple of things Twitter could consider doing.

Account lockdown “panic mode”.

Suggested by the ever brilliant @flayman – this system would allow a user to put their account into a temporary “panic mode” state, where they would no longer see @ messages from anybody other than their followers or followees. This would have the effect that troll messages got no response and such attacks would be ineffective, meaning that they would subside quickly.

If “panic mode” was implemented at platform level, rather than just in the Twitter client, users attempting to post an @ mention addressed to a locked down account could have their posts rejected and/or twitter could log and monitor posts to the “panic mode” account for abuse handling purposes.

Block rate controls

Twitter can already send users to “Twitter jail” for posting too many posts in a short space of time. It may be possible for Twitter to identify trends in the number / rate / ratio of blocks a user account receives, and translate this into a flagging process which allows accounts to either be publicly flagged as possible troll accounts, or manually checked for abuse by moderators.

Edit: Troll flagging / karma

My suggestion is that the number of blocks which an account receives could be used to set a troll “karma” score for that account. If (say) over the last 30 days:

( number of tweets from the account / number of times blocked ) > [n]

… the user’s account is flagged as a possible troll account. To prevent gaming of this system, the platform would filter out large sudden spikes in blocks over a certain number.

Users would then be able to choose whether they wish to receive mentions from troll flagged accounts. In this way, one can make trolling on Twitter a much less effective and rewarding activity without affecting the openness of the platform.

This would operate much like Twitter jail: it would be rate based and inherently temporary, ensuring that users can’t set up and operate accounts expressly for the purpose of harassing other users.

Any other ideas?

This is a live debate. There are many avenues unexplored here. I would only ask that we proceed with caution and don’t leap to a kneejerk reaction which is either ineffective, counterproductive, illiberal, or worse still, all three at once.

 

 

Deyka Ayan Hassan: The UK justice system serves the far right once again.

Deyka Ayan Hassan seems to have the worst comic timing imaginable. Just minutes after news broke of the beheading of a man in Woolwich, she posted a tweet:

“To be honest, if you wear a Help for Heroes t-shirt you deserve to be beheaded”

This tweet eventually resulted in her being arrested, landing in court, and being sentenced to 250 hours of community service. Had she made her post only a few weeks later, today’s CPS guidelines should have prevented her from ever being prosecuted.

In a disturbing parallel to the Azhar Ahmed case, Hassan’s tweet was shared all over the internet, and she became the subject of abuse and menaces. These included threats to burn her house down and threats of rape and murder. She quickly deleted both her Twitter and Facebook accounts, and went to the police to report the harassment. It was at this point that she was arrested, and later charged.

A quick look at some of the comments about Hassan’s tweet indicate that much of the response was racially motivated. for example: this yahoo comment thread. Just as in Azhar Ahmed’s case, it appears fairly clear that the angry and violent response to her post was for the most part coming from the extreme right.

Hassan herself asserted in court that her tweet was a joke about the style of the Help for Heroes t-shirts. This was not disputed in court. It is unfortunate in the extreme that Hassan chose to plead guilty. Perhaps she simply wanted to put the whole episode behind her. It is reported that she felt a great deal of remorse about her post. Of course, it also possible that she felt intimidated by the threats she had received online, and by the lack of support she had received from either the police or the judicial system. Frankly, who can blame her? this must be a terrifying experience for any young woman to be put through.

Of course, some might argue that her tweet was politically motivated, and that she knew exactly what she was writing. For example, she might have been expressing a protest against the fetishing of war and the military? Maybe her solicitor even suspected the same and for this reason advised her to plead guilty. It should be considered, however, that our supposedly democratic and open society values free speech highly. Even if Hassan’s tweet was posted with this idea in mind, this should not be sufficient to make her actions a criminal offence. Indeed, the act of political protest would surely make her freedom to speak all the more valuable.

Of course, I’m speculating and projecting wildly there. Hassan’s explanation that her tweet was nothing more than a joke about fashion was not questioned by the court. Nonetheless, her plea of guilty has resulted in a criminal conviction for what is widely accepted to have been nothing more than a poor taste joke.

Let us remind ourselves, once again, of the words of LCJ in Chambers v DPP:

“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 [section 127 of the Communications Act 2003].”

Also quoted in the CPS prosecuting guidelines published today. This is a sentiment in direct opposition to Hassan’s arrest, charging and conviction.

Finally, on an even more chilling note, we are told that in sentencing, the magistrate told Hassan that it was only because the court accepted Hassan’s assertion that she did not know at the time of her post that the Woolwich victim was a soldier, that Hassan was not given a custodial sentence. This carries the worrying implication that insulting a soldier online is now a custodial offence.

The lesson, as always when charged with an online speech offence is simple NEVER PLEAD GUILTY.

This story elsewhere in the news:

 

Final guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media published

Today the DPP Kier Starmer, shortly before his exit from the job, has now published the final version of the guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media.

On first reading, the recommendations are all sounds, and should do a great deal to control the over prosecution of speech on social media. Drawing on both DPP v Collins and Chambers v DPP, the guidelines make several important points. For example:

34. In these circumstances there is the potential for a chilling effect on free speech and prosecutors should exercise considerable caution before bringing charges under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. There is a high threshold that must be met before the evidential stage in the Code for Crown Prosecutors will be met. Furthermore, even if the high evidential threshold is met, in many cases a prosecution is unlikely to be required in the public interest (see paragraphs 42 onwards).

…and…

44. A prosecution is unlikely to be both necessary and proportionate where:

 

  • The suspect has expressed genuine remorse;
  • Swift and effective action has been taken by the suspect and/or others for example, service providers, to remove the communication in question or otherwise block access to it;
  • The communication was not intended for a wide audience, nor was that the obvious consequence of sending the communication; particularly where the intended audience did not include the victim or target of the communication in question; or
  • The content of the communication did not obviously go beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in an open and diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression.

You can read the CPS press release here.