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Networks asked to police themselves

The barrier where free speech meets regulation in the internet age is becoming one of increasing friction. In response to yet more high profile cases the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has said first that social networks must do more to police their own content and subsequently that new laws may be needed.

The most recent cases have seen a man jailed for 12 weeks after using Facebook to make light of the plight of missing (and, tragically presumed dead) Welsh schoolgirl April Jones.

Another Facebook user avoided jail for his unpopular opinions. But after using the deaths of six British soldiers in Afghanistan as an opportunity to tell the world that ‘all soldiers should die and go to hell’he will carry out 240 hours of community service.

The welter of prosecutions has led – along with the posting of millions of pixels-worth of online comment - the DPP Keir Starmer to look at how the online world is policed.

In a series of seminars Starmer has held on the subject, one of the prime movers for some sort of reform of the current system is believed to be Britain’s police services.

They are the ones faced with a crime that almost anyone can report falling victim to simply by logging on to their computers. Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act makes ‘grossly offensive’material sent by electronic means a crime. So now what might once have been the quick gross-out moment of the latest sick joke in the school yard can cost a youngster a couple of terms behind bars.

Chief constables want companies like Facebook and Twitter to act more quickly to take down offensive material. The social networks are faced both with increasing costs to employ moderators and of defining a line in the free speech friendly world of the web over which its users must not tread.

Starmer may do what he has with other controversial areas of laws – such as assisted suicides – and take all decisions on whether to prosecute into his own hands.

However, he has hinted that the Communications Act has now passed its sell by date and Parliament may need to make the decisions about whether social media should be treated in the same way as telephone communication.

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