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Speech and the Law: Why the UK Attorney General has a Twitter Headache

One week ago, the Attorney General's Office (AGO) released a statement regarding a Twitter user who had broken a legal injunction against publishing identifying details about convicted murderer Jon Venables.

The case was brought by Attorney General Dominic Grieve and the AGO, in their statement, described the breach as follows:

"Below and alongside the usual image of Venables as a child were different images of an adult male. These were accompanied by a tweet saying: ‘Its on bbc news about the jon venables pic on twitter saying its been removed eerrrm no it hasn't'. He then argued with other Twitter users who warned him of the consequences."

But from today, tweeters will be prompted to be more cautious, thanks to a new scheme by the AGO to publish advice against contempt of court offences (such as, but not limited to, breaking injunctions). Fittingly, alerts will be posted via their Twitter feed.

"Even jurors have been found in contempt recently after using online services inappropriately"

There's been a string of incidents which suggest that better information is needed to tell people when and how to use public social media in relation to legal cases. Even jurors, who get briefed on the strict rules to which they must abide while a case is being heard, have been found in contempt recently after using online services inappropriately.

We're still waiting for the first example of @AGO_UK's advice at the time of writing, but Grieve has been quoted in The Telegraph saying, "The idea that you have immunity because you're an anonymous tweeter is a big mistake," so the intention is clearly not just to massage offenders, but continue to tackle them head-on.

Grieve is not new to the fray. In fact, he's been speaking and writing about this issue fervently for the last few years. In a Guardian piece entitled, "Contempt laws are still valid in the internet age" in February 2012, he set forth his concern that, "the inhabitants of the internet often feel themselves to be unconstrained by the laws of the land."

Clive Coleman, the BBC's Legal Correspondent, closely echoed this statement in his analysis of today's news: "There is a public misconception that the internet is somehow a free speech zone to which the criminal and civil law does not apply. That is being corrected."

The tone of both comments suggests that people are wilfully disobeying the law. I'm sure that in many cases that has occurred, but I want to point out why it may not always be quite so straightforward. For one thing, there are a wide variety of ways in which you can be in contempt of court, and I'd be surprised if most people in Britain knew the intricacies, even the simple fact that you don't have to be inside a court to be in contempt of it!

"You don't have to be inside a court to be in contempt of it!"

So, let me start by saying that I am 100% in favour of the government and legal institutions making an effort to better educate people about how to protect themselves online. If people have broken important laws and legal guidelines through ignorance alone, then, despite the fact that ignorance may be no defence, it should at the very least be a motivator for the Law to try and tackle that ignorance, since it's for everyone's benefit in the long-run.

Grieve is spot on in one area: people are now subject to rules and regulations which previously only applied to the media. That this is true is made all the more clear by the fact that advice published for all to see via @AGO_UK will be notices that have traditionally been for media organisations only. Now, they're for everyone; because internet.

The written - and published - word is something that we have all gorged on feverishly since the advent of the web. We've flexed and expanded language into new forms so we can communicate more and more fluidly. From txtspk to gchat to grammatical innovations, the very style and appearance of language on social media loudly announces that we've been trying to bend this weird new medium to our will.

Largely, we've been pretty successful. As sociology doctoral candidate Sarah Wanenchak hinted recently, the literary diversity of online dialogue demonstrates a collective cognizance of social contexts into which new kinds of expression and textual interaction now slip. "It's something I don't think twice about," comments Wanenchak. "It's just another tool in my linguistic toolbox."

"It's something I don't think twice about. It's just another tool in my linguistic toolbox"

A commenter on Wanenchak's article pointed out that people say LOL differently in other languages. Just look at all of these examples. To me, the onomatopoeia and abbreviation central to many of these is immediately indicative of a natural desire to express oneself quickly, creatively, powerfully. In other words, we do it without thinking twice. We don't compose and type, we simply speak through the written language of the web.

And that's where the insistence that you "think before you tweet" hits a bit of a stumbling block. People don't want to have the fluidity of online communication techniques disrupted or shackled in any way. It runs contrary to their adoption of the medium. That adoption is geared to maximising both the economy and impact of verbal expression itself. Strength of voice, in the age of viral memes, is everything.

Is this why shrieking against so-called "free speech" abuses is so common on the web? Perhaps this is one way of displaying a new, instinctive sense of injustice over the idea that what you say could be subject to someone else's control. What if the freedom and power of online discourse has to obey some boundaries?

Of course, if you think "free speech" is a right to say whatever you want in a public forum regardless of the consequences then what you're talking about isn't a "right" at all, but rather unprecedented immunity from laws, taboos, social sensitivities and the rights, indeed, of others.

It's this sort of attitude that Grieve probably imagines he is targeting with a statement like, "The idea that you have immunity because you're an anonymous tweeter is a big mistake." But reaction to today's news has been pretty indignant from members of the public who probably aren't out to purposefully disrespect the law or rights of others. It seems rather more instinctive: the idea of someone interfering with speech and information sharing practices, in principio, is culturally viewed as toxic.

My personal hope is that people will take the advice on board and better protect themselves from falling foul of the law (which is pretty poor at catching up with new media, I know, but it's also there for a reason). However, I also hope that the AGO will make an effort to better understand what social media is and how people use it in these bold new, textually conversational ways.

Because, regardless of how either side performs, there is probably going to be friction here for a long time. The collapse of oral communication into more easily prosecutable written forms has taken everyone by surprise.

How do people adjust to that? What role do tech firms play? Do police and lawmakers need to be more active?

The jury's still out.


Photo: "Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP, Attorney General, UK" by Chatham House. Published under a Creative Commons (CC) License.


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