Lawyers warn Twitter and Facebook users

Louise MenschStefan Wermuth/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Recent high profile cases have revealed just how much trouble an unpleasant Tweet or Facebook update could land users in. With one Twitter user facing a bill for £90,000 in damages for libel and another jailed for mocking footballer Fabrice Muamba, one expert has warned about the high price people will pay for vindictive posting

So what are the risks?

The warning

The warning has come from Attorney General Dominic Grieve who said users need to be more aware of just how easy it is to break the law online, and just how costly that can prove to be.

The issue has arisen because the nature of online communications has made it easy for users to post offensive and upsetting remarks, purely because they believe they are doing so anonymously and they can get away with it.

However, by abusing someone online they are breaking a number of laws. Libel is a very real danger if you make a published accusation about someone you cannot prove. The recent case where ex-chairman of the Indian Premier League Lalit Modi was found guilty of having libeled former New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns on Twitter ended with £90,000 in damages, which is a lot of money for a brief update.

Upsetting insults are dangerous too. Perhaps the most high-profile case was when 21-year old Liam Stacey was jailed for his posts about footballer Fabrice Muamba on Twitter.

The law

respectme, Scotland's Anti-Bullying Service, says there are four UK laws and one Scottish one, which can be used to prosecute cyber bullies. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 has been used to prosecute bullies who do so by email. Meanwhile the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which defines a criminal offence of intentional harassment, covers all forms, including sexual harassment.

The Malicious Communications Act 1998/Telecommunications Act 1984 makes it an offence to send "indecent, offensive or threatening" electronic communications - and can be punishable by up to six months in jail.

The Communications Act 2003 punishes offensive communications. It states: "A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he/she knows to be false."

Finally in Scotland, cyber bullying that causes fear, alarm, upset or annoyance can be prosecuted under Breach of the Peace legislation.

Prosecution

Grieve warned that should you fall foul of the law, you will find you are far less anonymous than you think, and that the web companies will be compelled to release data clearly identifying you - even if your account was closed long ago.

This week, Frank Zimmerman, 60, was found guilty of posting aggressive, insulting and upsetting Tweets about Conservative MP Louise Mensch (pictured), during which he threatened her children's lives. He was found guilty of "sending Mensch an electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, offensive or menacing character" and will be sentenced in June. The judge warned him he could be imprisoned for up to six moths.

The legislation is clear, the commitment from the authorities is firm. The message that comes through loud and clear is that the internet is no place for bullying and harassment.
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