Twitter trials are no joke

Being unfunny isn't a crime

Twitter trials

I would like to punch David Cameron in the face. I want to drop a tractor on Carol Vorderman. I want to cover Nick Griffin in jam and throw him into a room full of angry bees. I want to fire Glenn Beck from a cannon face first into Mount Rushmore.

If I'd posted that on Twitter, I might have been arrested.

In the real world we know about context. We know that people often say things they think are hilarious and that everyone else is appalled by.

And we know the difference between someone posting "I'd like to smack Adrian Chiles with a plank to see which one's more wooden" and posting somebody's address and telling people to go there and hurt them.

Not on Twitter, though. A throwaway comment about blowing up an airport loses you your job and gets you dragged through the courts. An unfunny joke is interpreted as a threat of violence and its author is arrested.

I'm no fan of internet abuse, whether it's the default "you suck!" response of online commenters or the more serious, more scary and - thankfully - more rare abuse from the sick, the thick, the bad and the bullies.

But the prosecution of Paul Chambers is a travesty, and the reaction to Gareth Compton's stupidity is a massive overreaction.

Dangerous developments

These are dangerous developments, and not just for the Twitter users concerned. If you can be arrested for saying something unpleasant, if obvious attempts at comic hyperbole can get you prosecuted, then Charlie Brooker, Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr had better get out of the country fast.

The laws we have on malicious communications are there for a good reason. Some people use online anonymity to say terrible, hurtful things, to harass, to victimise, or to incite violence.

Of course that's unacceptable. But that's not what we've got here. We've got people being arrested because someone else didn't find their jokes funny - jokes that in any other context wouldn't have raised an eyebrow.

Gareth Compton's tweet was offensive, but it wasn't threatening. Paul Chambers' bomb joke was ill-judged, perhaps, but he said it to his friends. He wasn't phoning in bomb threats to the airport switchboard and there was clearly no malice in what he posted - and yet he has been prosecuted under a law designed to crack down on malicious messages, his life ruined for no good reason.

To involve the police isn't just a sense of humour failure; it's crying wolf in a new and chilling way - and it's wasting resources that would be better spent on the people who use the Internet to hurt and harass.

If the Communications Act can be used to ruin lives over innocuous tweets, then that law is an ass.

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