Section 127: The Twitter-only law?

Anyone who uses Twitter at the moment has probably heard of the #twitterjoketrial, where Paul Chambers was found guilty of posting something to Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport that some judges didn’t think was funny. Similarly, Councillor Gareth Compton was arrested by the police for having a suspicious sense of humour when reacting to a Radio 5 Live interview with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, again as a result of a Twitter message.

The offence of having a bad sense of humour whilst in possession of a Twitter account is part of the Communications Act 2003, specifically section 127, which makes it illegal to send messages that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” or “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network”.

The difficulty in both these cases is that the police and court service don’t seem to grasp that a single 140 character twitter message is unlikely to contain enough context to figure out of it’s “menacing” or not. Particularly with hash tags, as in the case of Gareth Compton the hash tag was indicating he was responding to the Radio 5 interview. Taken on their own, the majority of Twitter messages probably do not make any sense at all.

Yet in completely unrelated news yesterday, we hear that an anti-bullying charity is calling for better laws to tackle cyber-bullying. It seems there is currently some difficulty handling cases where kids are “being harassed through texts, emails and social networking sites.” Now, can anyone think of any laws that might be used to handle online harassment?

Looks like section 127 is OK to use when the police want to prosecute someone who makes a terrorism-related joke or poor-taste comments about a prominent figure, but they haven’t quite applied that much thought to protecting kids.

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