Your online habits could land you in prison

The internet has given rise to new crimes – from hacking and bank fraud to eBay scams – but it’s also created a new kind of troublemaker: the accidental criminal.

No-one would be surprised by an early-morning knock on the door if they’d hacked an online banking site, but the reach of the web means it’s never been easier for otherwise well-behaved citizens to break the law inadvertently.

Neither the law nor common sense have kept pace with a world in which social networks and file-sharing sites changed the legal landscape. More importantly, people who previously had no means of libelling a celebrity or breaching contempt of court rules can now do so simply by hitting Retweet. We’re all a click away from accusations of harassment or causing gross offence.

Laws are applied with a varying degree of severity, which further clouds the issue of just what will or won’t land you with a spell at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Even if you think you’re no law-breaker, there’s a good chance that even our most honest reader has broken some sort of law online, whether by ripping a CD or using a song or photo without permission, even if it’s by mistake.

Social services

Nowhere is it easier to break the law than on Twitter or Facebook, partly because people who are untrained in libel laws are now publishers, and subject to the same controls as newspaper editors – who are (theoretically) trained in media law.

Twitter is so short and instant, so much about the heat and the heart of the debate, that it’s a temptation for people to tweet too quickly without considering the consequences

Often, we see Facebook and Twitter as extensions of a pub discussion, where banter and alcohol-enhanced opinions are routine but ephemeral. Online, however, our comments stick around and spread quickly, potentially reaching a wider audience than intended – sparking a “Twitter storm”.

“Twitter is so short and instant, so much about the heat and the heart of the debate, that it’s a temptation for people to tweet too quickly without considering the consequences. There could be contempt of court, defamation or data-protection issues,” said Kathryn Wynn, a senior associate with tech law firm Pinsent Masons. “We’ve seen real-world examples of this… people can’t substantiate a tweet as they don’t have any evidence. In the heat of the debate, people don’t go away and check, because the debate would have moved on – so they don’t stop to think.”

It’s because of incidents like this that a social network user could find themselves facing court. Several trolls have served time, and libellous posters have had to dig deep to pay damages.

Despite the grave consequences, the authorities are still coming to terms with how to deal with Joe Bloggs gaining a platform to air opinion and humour. Look at the farcical trial of Paul Chambers, who was found guilty of sending a menacing message when he jokingly threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport near Doncaster after it was closed due to snow, though later acquitted on appeal – common sense and law don’t always mix.

Since that case, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidelines have laid out where prosecution for harassment or web threats is justified, focusing on whether threats are credible, how persistent the harassment is, and the level of offensiveness.

In its guidelines on when to prosecute, the CPS says most Twitter rant cases shouldn’t go to court, even if the post involves “the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour; even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it”.

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