(You can follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter by clicking here)
As social media misuse and illegality have grown in Northern Ireland, so the need for Northern Ireland law makers to provide guidance has grown. Social networks are large public forums; however they cannot be allowed to become large ungoverned spaces.
Going forward, the need for clarity and certainty should be a salient priority. This is twofold:
Firstly, social networks need legal and social norms, whether written or unwritten, to set out broad parameters for what social media users in Northern Ireland can and cannot do.
Secondly, the PSNI and Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory need formal guidance or encoded legislation that sets out when social media users can be arrested and when wrongdoers should be brought before Northern Ireland courts.
Fortunately, albeit a little belatedly, NI law makers have begun to respond to the social media question. They’ve set out a clear position: both the courts and Northern Ireland MLAs want legal control.
In today’s article I want to look at events that have occurred at Stormont so far. In a later post we will look at the position of the courts.
At Stormont events and proceedings are still in motion, but here’s an abridged version of the story so far.
Firstly, on Tuesday 5 February – a day which also happened to be Safer Internet Day – the Stormont Assembly hosted a debate on a motion raised by Sinn Fein MLA Rosie McCorley on social networking sites.
Rosie McCorley opened the debate and underlined the rise of online hate speech, personal threats and homophobic messages and called on the Justice Minister, David Ford to introduce regulation and tougher penalties for those who use new media to commit crime.
Rosie McCorley welcomed the amendment tabled by the SDLP but said that it should be broadened to include all online crime, and not only hate crime. Her intentions were clear and fully legislation-minded: “we are duty-bound to try to regulate internet sites’ activity and not just remain bystanders.”
Conall McDevitt came to the floor and extolled the benefits of new media but rebutted McCorley’s drive for laying down news law, advocating proper use of existing legislation.
However his comments on the now infamous #TwitterJokeTrial failed to acknowledge the recent developments in England and Wales. McDevitt seemed to use the #TwitterJokeTrial as an example of when an arrest and prosecution should be made, but as we now know, the Director of Public Prosections Keir Starmer QC in England has said that no longer would people like Paul Chambers – the man at the centre of the #TwitterJokeTrial – be brought to book.
Conall was right however to say that the PSNI needs more expertise on how to deal with routine online hate crime.
The Chair of the Committee for Justice, the DUP’s Paul Givan joined the debate and spoke on his experience of online abuse. He advocated new regulation and drew his remarks to a close by supporting the motion and the SDLP’s amendment for additional police resources.
The UUP’s Tom Elliott acknowledged McDevitt’s comments that existing legislation should be exercised but said that more is needed. His remarks on Sinn Fein’s Phil Flanagan who called him a “clampit” online were risible as were some of the comments by DUP MLA, Jim Wells who made reference to insulting comments made against him.
The Alliance party’s Stuart Dickson seconded the motion and the proposed amendment.
DUP’s David McIlveen pushed the need for more education and self-regulation, but went on to support the motion and amendment. Sinn Fein’s Sean Lynch smacked down any suggestion of self-regulation and called on the Justice Minister to bring forward regulation.
The DUP’s Alex Euston and Raymond McCartney of Sinn Fein also added their voices to the legal control lobby and backed regulation.
The Justice Minister, David Ford took to the floor and brought some much needed clarity.
Regulation of the internet is an issue that goes beyond the competency of Mr Ford’s office and all parts of the devolved Executive. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, it is a reserved issue, which reflects the global nature of telecommunications.
On this point of law, decisions on regulation are for the Westminster government to make through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in London.
David Ford did add that there are existing laws that can be used to police the online world in Northern Ireland, notably the Communications Act 2003. He also brought forward a welcome distinction: people can use offensive language against politicians but not grossly offensive language.
It was also pleasing to see Mr Ford make notice of the recent interim guidelines produced by the DPP for England and Wales. Echoing Keir Starmer, David Ford said that the threshold for prosecution should be set high; otherwise there could be a “chilling effect on free speech”.
Drawing his observations to a close Mr Ford said that he would be meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling to highlight the issues raised in the Assembly.
The debate on social media in Northern Ireland is a welcome development. It has unveiled some worrying trends however.
Firstly, it has shown a lack of basic legal understanding on the part of many of our local lawmakers.
Secondly, it has also highlighted an over-enthusiastic approach to legislation and a lack of appreciation for idea of freedom of speech.
No doubt social media in Northern Ireland has seen sectarianism grow new legs, however knee-jerk policy making is not the answer.
Our local policy makers could do well to learn from law makers in England and Wales who have taken a more measured and slow brew approach to the matter of how social media should be policed.
Only then can we be expected to strike the right balance between the basic civil liberty of free speech and the curtailment of gratuitous hate communications.
(You can follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter by clicking here)
I think there needs to be a fuller review of all media law probably in light of the Social Media explosion. Overly abusive attacks on politicians and others seem to go unheaded and must be stressful for the victims who have limited options to deal with this sort of cyber bullying. But there are other issues such as child protection and also copyright of words and images etc. And as someone deeply involved in the blog/internet scene I would add more needs to be done quickly to tighten it up.
The global social media platforms may need to modify their procedures a bit and certainly ensure that there are no hiding holes for anonymous trolls. The genie is out of the bottle and ain’t going back in. It is all a new experience for us and eventually the law and various types of regulation will level things out.
I’m all in favour of free speech but I don’t believe in absolutes. It comes at a price. Social media is a powerful tool that can be used for good or bad. I think each social media platform such as Facebook and Twitter should have an accessible function where complaints are dealt with by an adjudicator quickly in a pre-legal way to prevent escalation of bullying, libel etc. Universal access to the internet should be a human right and we need to be protective of this new norm. I’m not an expert on the law but recognise much needs to be done in this area.
Great piece by Brian!