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Social media flame wars to be illegal, says top Crown prosecutor

Unlucky, commentards: You're all thought criminals now

Social media users who engage in flame wars or retweet the doxing of others will be treated in the same way as those making fake bomb threats over social media, British prosecutors have announced.

Released this morning, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)'s latest “Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media” target doxing, online mobs, fake social media profiles and other social media misbehaviour.

Also included in the latest version of the guidance is a specific encouragement to prosecutors to charge those who egg on others to break social media speech laws. “Those who encourage others to commit a communications offence may be charged with encouraging an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2007,” warns the guidance.

Doxing is the practice of posting home addresses, bank details and so on on public sites, usually to out an anonymous poster or to spur on a ridiculing mob.

In a blitz of publicity, embattled Crown Prosecution Service chief prosecutor Alison Saunders boasted to the BBC: “The internet's not an anonymous place where people can post without any consequences.”

Saunders has faced repeated and sustained criticism during her tenure as CPS chief, including over the bungled Operation Elveden, which wasted hundreds of millions of pounds hounding more than 60 tabloid journalists for publishing stories that embarrassed the Establishment. Just one was convicted of a criminal offence and is appealing.

Tweet tweet

Twitter is specifically mentioned in the guidance, released today. The UK criminal offence of posting revenge porn, can also be applied to “anyone who re-tweets or forwards without consent, a private sexual photograph or film, if the purpose … was to cause distress to the individual depicted.”

However, there's a get-out clause: “Anyone who sends the message only because he or she thought it was funny would not be committing the offence.”

In a Kafka-esque twist, the guidance also includes this chilling line, discussing how prosecutors can prove the criminal offence of sending a “grossly offensive” message, under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003:

The offence is committed by sending the message. There is no requirement that any person sees the message or be offended by it.

Setting up a fake social media account in someone else's name is also said to be a potential crime.

The guidance also encourages prosecutors to treat social media crimes committed against “persons serving the public” more seriously than nasty words directed against their fellow members of the public. Similarly, “coordinated attacks by different people” should also attract greater prosecutorial attention. “Live chat harassment”, or flaming, is defined as “a form of verbal online abuse”, as is “leaving improper messages on online forums or message boards”. Older Reg readers will recall the trend of forum raids in the mid-2000s and earlier, which provided mostly harmless fun for those taking part.

Prosecution in all cases is said to be less likely if “swift and effective action has been taken by the suspect and/or others, for example service providers, to remove the communication”.

"I've yet to see a successful prosecution," noted Twitter baiter Old Holborn told El Reg. "Plenty where the idiots plead guilty but no actual found guilty without rape threats."

The CPS said that 73 per cent of hate crime prosecutions involved a guilty plea.

The new guidance was released along with a public consultation on what should constitute a hate crime, particularly against the disabled, race and religion, and on sexual orientation and gender identity. The full social media prosecution guidance can be read on the CPS website. ®

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