In Britain, a debate over freedom of the tweet

The Washington Post

After the recent slaying of a British soldier in a suspected Islamist extremist attack, angry social media users took to Twitter and Facebook, with some dispatching racially and religiously charged comments that got them quickly noticed on the busy boulevards of the Internet.

For at least half a dozen users, their comments landed them in jail. Acting on complaints from outraged members of the public, British authorities slapped charges of “malicious communication” on the worst offenders.

Social media crackdowns have become the hallmark of authoritarian governments from China to Syria. But the arrests in the past week became the latest in a string of such cases in Britain, underscoring how even some of the world’s greatest democracies are struggling with the rising power of social media.

Last year in England and Wales alone, 653 people faced criminal charges related to their activity on social media, up from 46 such arrests in 2008, according to figures released to the media under a Freedom of Information request. And after the killing of the soldier last month on a busy southeastern London street, some in Britain’s Conservative-led government are pushing for even broader powers to police electronic communication in an effort to root out homegrown terrorism.

As authorities intervene in more and more social media cases, however, the debate is escalating over the right to free speech in a world where anyone with a mobile device or a computer can find a public pulpit.

“There is no broad First Amendment protection in Britain on the right to free speech, and we’re still figuring out how to address public expression through social media,” said Padraig Reidy, an expert at the Index on Censorship, a London-based free speech group. “The worrying question is whether, as we try to keep up with social media, is there a tendency by the government and the police to try to limit what some people say?”

Arrests linked to social media are not unheard of in the United States, where a New Jersey high school student was brought up on charges in January for allegedly “trash-tweeting” a threat to blow up a rival high school’s gym. But experts say the legal response to social media has been stronger in Britain, a nation where critics say a tendency to jealously guard personal privacy and put public safety first has occasionally trumped the right to free speech.

Britain has seen not only a surge in criminal prosecutions but also a growing number of civil suits. Recently, the effervescent wife of the speaker of the House of Commons became the latest casualty of the Great British Twitter Wars, which have seen a number of social media users fined for slander.

Sally Bercow, 43, has spent years prolifically tweeting the inside scoop about life “under Big Ben,” racking up more followers than the subscriber base of some British newspapers. But in a decision seen as a warning to social media users nationwide, a high court ruled she had libeled Lord Alistair McAlpine by suggesting in a recent tweet that the Conservative politician was an unnamed pedophile in what turned out to be a spurious expose by the BBC.

When she tweeted “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*,” Bercow had merely dared to put into 140 characters or less a rumor that was widely circulating in media circles, she argued. But just as the BBC had to settle with McAlpine for its false report, so Bercow’s tweet led to an undisclosed settlement reaching into five figures, according to the Independent newspaper. The case ensnared lesser Twitter users who had also named McAlpine, with a number of them directed to donate to charities or do community service under a separate legal settlement.

“Twitter can be a very dangerous thing,” said Dina Shiloh, a lawyer specializing in privacy cases. “People shouldn’t be allowed to falsely brand someone a pedophile or send menacing comments.”

Freedom of expression is enshrined inside various laws in Britain, home of the Magna Carta and one of the most tenacious press corps in the world. But British communication and privacy laws spell out a series of exceptions, including for threatening or abusive language, breach of the peace, incitement to violence and harassment.

Authorities say the comments that led to the recent arrests of social media users met those exceptions. Some of the posts, including at least one linked to a member of the English Defense League, a nationalist extremist group, appeared to be attempts to stir social unrest at a particularly tense time.

Yet the prosecution of other cases has led many there to wonder whether authorities are also attempting to regulate good taste and political correctness.

During last year’s Olympic Games in London, for instance, a 17-year-old was arrested for sending a tweet to Tom Daley, a British diver, suggesting the athlete had let his late father down by delivering a less-than-perfect performance.

In another now-infamous case, Paul Chambers, a financial industry supervisor, was initially found guilty of “menacing electronic communication” for tweeting a joke about “blowing up” his local airport in South Yorkshire after it had closed because of heavy snow. The response by authorities turned Chambers into a national hero. Chambers fought a 2010 conviction, which was finally quashed on appeal last year.

“We need to accept that people have the right to communicate, even to communicate in an obnoxious or disagreeable way, and there is no desire on the part of the police to get involved in that judgment,” Andy Trotter, chief constable of the British Transport Police, said in a statement. “But equally, there are many offenses involving social media such as harassment or genuine threats of violence which cause real harm. It is that higher end of offending which forces need to concentrate on.”