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Britain punishes Web comments of 19-year-old

CHORLEY, England — Everyone agrees that his "jokes" making fun of two kidnapped girls crossed the line. Matthew Woods swiftly became an object of contempt after he posted the crude and offensive comments on his Facebook page.

But did he deserve to be locked up for them?

A judge thought so, and ordered the 19-year-old to spend 12 weeks in jail, essentially for overstepping the bounds of good taste. Woods now sits behind bars — and also in the middle of a growing clash in Britain between freedom of expression, societal mores and the digital revolution.

Woods is one of several people whose use of social media has landed them on the wrong side of the law.

One man, angry about the war in Afghanistan, was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service for declaring on Facebook that "all soldiers should die and go to hell." Police also went knocking on the door of a 17-year-old boy who tweeted an insulting message to Olympic diver Tom Daley, saying that he had let down his dead father by failing to win a gold medal. He was arrested, but released and given a warning.

The source of the controversy is a 2003 communications law that, among other things, makes it a crime to send messages deemed "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character" through a public electronic network.

Critics note that provision actually comes from an older version of the law from the 1930s and was aimed at protecting telephone operators from abuse. The 2003 act kept that passage, but it was in a world before Facebook, Twitter or other online social networking sites, at a time when the phrase "going viral" had not yet gone, well, viral.

Last year, police were called out to investigate nearly 2,500 such cases, the BBC reported recently. Some police officials have complained that this is not a good use of their time.

The chief prosecutor for England and Wales, Keir Starmer, appears to agree. His office is now consulting police, attorneys and academics to come up with guidelines on what kinds of cases should merit investigation and prosecution under the 2003 law.

One possible marker is whether the messages are actually harassing or threatening, rather than simply distasteful.

Britain punishes Web comments of 19-year-old 11/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 10, 2012 10:48pm]
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