UK loosens online comments law

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UK loosens online comments law

Digital media still being watched.

The UK's Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has published new guidelines that make it less likely that people who say stupid things online will be hauled before the courts.

According to barrister Adam Wagner of the UK Human Rights blog, the new guidelines apply to the Communications Act of 2003, which has a section that outlaws messages deemed to be "grossly offensive" or "of an indecent, obscene or menacing character". 

Although the law predates social media, it has been used to prosecute people for making possibly offensive comments on Twitter, Facebook and similar sites. 

The law is widely seen as being "highly problematic for free speech," Wagner noted.

A high profile example is that of Paul Chambers, convicted after tweeting: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"

The tweet, which Chambers said was a "silly joke", led to his arrest by four police officers after airport staff reported it several days later, and resulted in a conviction for sending a "clearly menacing" electronic communication.

He was fined £1,000 (A$1,550) but managed to have the conviction overturned in August this year.

Others have received prison sentences for offensive social media comments.

The CPS now said there is a "high threshold" to "grossly offensive" and that comments have to be more than just offensive, shocking, disturbing, rude or satirical for instance to result in a prosecution.

However, in calling the law "outdated" Wagner said it still leaves police and prosecutors deciding what speech is tolerable and acceptable.

He questioned whether they have the experience, intelligence and social sensitivity to do so when judging hundreds of millions of messages sent every month on social media.

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