The behaviour of those using social media sites and online P2P file-sharing sites often gives the impression that they assume themselves to be 'untouchable' by law or regulation. So, sometimes, does the attitude evinced by the organisations that own or operate those sites. But recent developments in English law suggest, with increasing frequency, that those assumptions are misconceived. We shall selectively review some of these legal developments below.
In the past few months an impressive arsenal of statutes has been deployed in order to impose criminal sanctions on those who use social media for abusive purposes. For example, in February the Malicious Communications Act 1988 was used to give Peter Copeland a four-month suspended jail sentence for having tweeted racist comments about Newcastle United fans. In May the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was used to jail Liam Stacey for two months for the racist remarks that he made on Twitter about Fabrice Muamba, a professional footballer. The Serious Crime Act 2007 has recently been used to jail (inter alios) Jordan Blackshaw for 4 years in August for having encouraged rioting by creating a Facebook event entitled 'Smash d[o]wn in Northwich town'. And section 127 of the Communication Act 2003 has received publicity in various recent cases. One of them related to Joshua Cryer, a law student who was sentenced in March to a two-year community order for having sent grossly offensive messages to Stan Collymore, a former footballer. Another related to Paul Chambers who, frustrated at the closure of Doncaster Robin Hood Airport, had tweeted in May 2010 "You've got a week and a bit to get your OBSCENITY together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!". He was convicted of the criminal offence of "sending, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message of a menacing character", and his appeal against the conviction was dismissed in November 2011 by the Crown Court. However, in July of this year, to widespread relief (not least on the part of the various celebrities who had funded his defence), Mr Chambers' conviction was overturned by the High Court1, who held that his tweet was not in fact menacing. The court took into account the fact that the security services had not responded to the message with any urgency, and that none of those who had followed Mr Chambers' tweets had reported his message as a threat.
All too often those who post abuse on social media sites do so anonymously, and this obviously creates serious legal problems for their...