How to Protect Yourself Under the Communications Act of 2003

by DarceyQ on April 18, 2013

  • Sharebar

The Communications Act of 2003 is an unintentionally dangerous law. Outdated a few short years after its passage, Section 127 of the law – which describes “improper use of public electronic communications network” and includes the gloriously vague term grossly offensive – at this point criminalizes almost everyone in the UK who has ever posted a joke, political rant, or unpopular opinion to Facebook, Twitter, or even a personal blog. The problem is twofold, of course: On the one hand the law was drafted long before the current universe of social media came into being, transforming anyone with time on their hands into micro-publishers of their every thought, and on the other the vague wording is so open to interpretation as to be useless as a judicial guideline. After all, grossly offensive to who? By what standard? On these key points Section 127 is silent.

The case of Matthew Woods is simply the most publicized and egregious misuse of this badly-written law. Woods, an unemployed Chorley man, posted several jokes about missing girl April Jones on Facebook. No one who has read these posts finds them funny, or particularly intelligent. Certainly anyone who reads them is horrified and perhaps offended. Perhaps even grossly offended. However, his recent sentence of twelve weeks imprisonment for violating Section 127 of the Communications Act is a dangerous precedent, because it essentially confirms that just about any posting to the Internet that is not completely neutral in tone or language is potentially criminal.

Woods freely admitted making the posts; he was inebriated at the time and it was, by his account, a strange prank to make people think that his account had been hacked. As a result he attempted to make the comments as offensive as possible. While we have no doubt that anyone associated with April Jones would be emotionally devastated by such comments on a public forum, the fact is that considering such language to be criminal instead of merely offensive is a new and extremely dangerous way to consider public speech. Mr. Woods did not exhort anyone to commit acts of violence or criminal intent. He did not make any false statements in the hopes that they would be taken as true. He could not, as far as can be determined, have any hopes of somehow profiting from his statements. The criminal nature of these statements lies completely in their being considered offensive by a number of people, including magistrate Bill Hudson, who described Woods’ comments as “abhorrent”.

Another distressing aspect of the Woods case is the fact that Woods is neither famous or well-off, both circumstances which seem to insulate the poster from prosecution under Section 127. Some have cited the tweets of comedian Frankie Boyle about another missing child, Madeline McCann, as an example of an equally offensive series of public posts – but Mr. Boyle has not been arrested and jailed for twelve weeks as a result of his jokes, perhaps because he is a professional comic and thus the humorous intent of his posts is more obvious. This, however, is not a guideline enshrined in law and leaves the interpretation of grossly offensive even less precise, if that were possible.

The question thus becomes how to protect yourself from trouble under Section 127 until someone gets around to fixing this unfortunately outdated law. The first advice would be to realize that you do, in fact, need to protect yourself. Matthew Woods was not an arch-criminal and he had no known enemies in government. He is a man who had a terrible idea while out on the tiles. Anyone who has ever had a bad idea for a sick joke, or a great idea for a devastating insult to a personal enemy could potentially be held as a criminal over such posts. If you have never said a single thing in your lifetime that you later regretted as mean-spirited or perhaps offensive, then perhaps you can rest easy. Otherwise, consider yourself the audience for this advice.

Second, do not comment publicly on news stories, especially those involving emotionally charged issues such as endangered children or other innocent victims. There is no doubt that the emotional nature of the Jones case coupled with the callous and harsh nature of Woods’ comments created an atmosphere of hysteria.

Finally, reconsider what you make public at all. All social media interfaces (such as Facebook and Twitter) have a private messaging option; if you wish to make humorous but potentially volatile comments to a specific number of people, a private message to them will insulate you from Section 127. The creation of private lists within these services can be an added convenience.

We are disturbed to suddenly find ourselves living in a country where bad taste is criminalized. While our faith in the system remains undamaged and we thus expect this law to be remedied quickly, until it is adjusted we urge everyone who utilizes public forums – which would be just about everyone in the country – to take care with what they post, and to keep the maddening phrase grossly offensive in mind at all times.

Mark Darcey is the owner of Darcey Quigley, an independently owned commercial debt recovery company based in the UK.

No related posts.

Previous post:

Next post: