When it comes to poor taste, 20-year-old Matthew Woods has plenty. This is the chap who posted offensive comments about missing five-year-old Welsh girl,April Jones, on his Facebook page. He pleaded guilty under s.127 of the UK Communications Act 2003, which prohibits a person sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. This law was written though before the surge in popularity of social media and the question should now be asked whether it needs to be amended.
Chairman of the bench, Bill Hudson, when commenting on the sentence of 12 weeks in jail added that ‘families involved in cases such as these should not have to be subjected to any use of social media like this and should not be used to mistreat people in this way’. I agree. But is a prison sentence really the way to go?
Adam Wagner, writing on the Human Rights blog, relays how the Director of Public Prosecutions pointed out that
… the Communications Act 2003 was passed before either Facebook or Twitter had been invented, and so the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] were understandably having trouble knowing how to police the billions of communications made publicly on social media. The CPS is to open the issue to public consultation so it can publish guidelines for prosecutors.
There is now way of course that anyone could have foreseen the effect social media would have on how we communicate – in essence, each one of us has become a publisher of sorts, free to air our views on anything and reach millions of people at the push of a button. Wagner goes on to warn that
the accidental combination of an old (in technology terms) law, designed it would seem primarily to stop harassment through the post and over the telephone line (see para 6-11 of DPP v Collins), with revolutionary new media may be making criminals of many of us, and that cannot be a good thing.
That some people have no sense of propriety is a given. That their sense of humour is questionable is beyond doubt. Add this to ready access to a global audience, and people can lose the run of themselves, as Woods did. But does this warrant a prision sentence?
Sending people to prison for being “grossly offensive” has the whiff of mob justice about it. Anyone who uses Twitter regularly will have seen the mob at work, whether attacking an individual for saying something offensive and stupid, or harassing a celebrity for crimes against taste or their political views. Sometimes this is a bit of fun, sometimes a little more sinister. [….] We need to think very hard, as a society, about whether we really want to be sending people to prison for making sick jokes.