The courts were relying upon ‘archaic legislation to police modern day crimes,’ warned civil liberties group, Big Brother Watch, in a new report revealing a surge in criminal charges and cautions involving social media.
The group is calling for an urgent reform of what they call ‘woefully out-of-date’ communication legislation after they carried out a report revealing crimes, recorded under the Communications and Malicious Communications Act, section 127 – which has its origins in the Post Office (Amendment) Act of 1930) – have increased by 40 percent nationally.
‘The laws used to police our communications are woefully out-of-date. There has been an increase in charges and convictions and cases involving the use of social media. It is therefore important that the legislation which is used by police and prosecutors is examined to ensure it doesn’t become obsolete in light of new technology.’
Big Brother Watch
Last month the group requested information under the Freedom of Information Act from 42 police forces in England and Wales, and although all responded, only 13 came back with the figures.
‘It is of concern that outdated, loosely-worded and confusing legislation is being used on a regular basis to police our communications,’ commented Dan Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch.
‘In the age of social media it is essential that action be taken to ensure that the legislation is up to date, proportionate and properly recorded. Until then more individuals, most of whom are guilty of stupidity rather than criminality, will find themselves unnecessarily dealing with the law.’
Dan Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch
Avon and Somerset police had the most charges or cautions – with a total of 555 between 2010 and 2013, 44 involved social media. Lancashire was second with 539 cases and Suffolk Constabulary third with 523.
It has been confirmed by police chiefs that there is no system for recording charges under the current legislation, which means the public has reason to believe the figures are much higher.
In 2013, following the ‘Twitter joke trial’ (Chambers v DPP), the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published guidelines on how to prosecute cases which involve social media. However, these guidelines have come under scrutiny, Big Brother Watch said:
‘In a submission to the CPS’s public consultation on the guidelines Big Brother Watch highlighted a number of concerns, including the failure of the guidelines to address the problems that the relevant legislation already faced; that it had effectively been rendered obsolete by the advent of social media.’
Little has changed since these guidelines were produced. It is therefore the view of Big Brother Watch that there needs to be serious reform in this area, to ensure that the laws are brought up to date.’
Some experts believe training is needed for police and the Crown Prosecution Service on how best to deal with social media crime.
BA Journalism undergraduate (third year), writer and reporter.