Heard the one about the Twitter joke trial?

Disclaimer: the blog that follows is entirely my personal opinion. It is not, however, a joke…

If you’re a regular Twitter user you’ve probably seen quite a few tweets this week tagged #twitterjoketrial

On Wednesday, the High Court in London considered the second appeal of 28-year-old former finance worker Paul Chambers against his 2010 conviction for sending what the law deems to be a “clearly menacing” tweet. In fact, any seasoned Twitterer (and indeed any reasonable person armed with the facts) would see it for what it clearly was – a joke.

The tweet – an exasperated, off the cuff comment about the fact Robin Hood airport was closed due to snowfall days before Chambers had a flight booked to visit hs girlfriend in Northern Ireland, read:  
“Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

For this “offence” Chambers has incurred a £1,000 fine (and significantly more in legal costs), lost two jobs and gained a criminal record. He didn’t send his tweet to the airport, he simply shared it with his connections on the network. The only reason it was deemed “public” is because, unless users specify otherwise, Twitter makes all tweets publicly accessible and anyone can search the recent archive by keywords, should they actively choose to do so.  

Following the first appeal in November 2010, thousands of Twitter users (myself included) retweeted Chambers’s original tweet appended with the hashtag #IAmSpartacus to demonstrate the widespread opposition to his prosecution. Prominent comedians and comedy writers including Stephen Fry, David Mitchell, Al Murray Charlie Brooker and Graham Linehan have all weighed in to the debate, variously offering vocal, moral and financial support to the defendant. Why? Because if Chambers’s conviction stands, it sets a dangerous precedent that threatens anyone who might want to joke, rant or make flippant comments online.

As free speech lawyer David Allen Green (who is acting for Chambers) wrote in advance of the appeal:

Because this is the first “appellate” case on what constitutes a “menacing” communication over the internet, the decision of the High Court will have potentially immense significance for any person who sends any content over the internet. […] If the CPS are successful, then the threshold for criminal liability will be low; if the submissions of Paul’s legal team are accepted, then the threshold will be high.

To almost everyone who knows the facts and understands social media, the case seems utterly misguided and a ridiculous waste of public money. If this appeal fails (judgment is expected soon) Chambers will take his appeal to the Supreme Court, piling up yet more costs on both sides. On Wednesday, tweets were zipping past at the rate of about one a second, with next to none in support of the prosecution.

We should be well aware, however, that there are plenty outside the Twtterati who think Chambers was wrong to joke about bombing an airport on a searchable, public forum where his comments might conceivably be misconstrued. “He was an idiot,” they say, “and should suffer the consequences. Let it serve as a lesson to him, and to others, that they should think a bit more carefully before they say something online that could be construed as threatening.”

As Stephen Fry might say, what po-faced, pompous piffle!  There’s a world of difference between someone making an anonymous, genuine-sounding threat or comment online and someone speaking conversationally on Twitter or any other social platform as they might in person. As Fry actually did say, Chambers’s tweet was no more menacing than a man at a bar saying something like: “I’ll kill my wife if she’s late again.”  

Fellow comedian David Mitchell said it even better in the Guardian after the original trial. And the humourless idiocy of those who might actually confuse the two was deftly highlighted again yesterday by this amusing disclaimer one Twitterer has appended to his profile. [update 11/02/2012: Al Murray has also written a good piece on the fiasco in today’s Guardian.}

But in many ways the Twitter joke trial is just a sideshow – which isn’t to lessen its significance, but merely to point out that there are far more dangerous threats to online freedom looming than this lamentable farce.

In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen online protests (from the likes of Wikipedia, Flickr, Google and a slew of other organisations and individuals) against the ill-conceived SOPA and PIPA legislation the US (which has since been postponed, although not abandoned). Then there were demonstrations in central Europe and the resignation of an MEP over the insidious Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), with further action planned for tomorrow.  

Far from being “apologists for piracy” (a label frequently used to dismiss opponents of these proposals) most of those protesting are doing so because of the potentially chilling implications of such proposals for free speech, privacy and online innovation.

First they would place huge burdens on many web-based businesses, hardware, software and network providers who could be mandated to introduce invasive monitoring, filtering and censorship technologies. More to the point, they are likely to be ineffective at trapping organised criminals, who will used advanced technological means to cover their tracks. 

In addition, the proposals have in the main been designed and lobbied for behind closed doors by large industries who want to preserve their market dominance and business models at the expense of smaller, more innovative market challengers. The operational, technological and financial constrictions they would place on both Internet start-ups and online social and community ventures could bring the unparalleled wave of Internet innovation we’ve seen in the past decade to a grinding halt. Even more chilling to anyone concerned with human rights, the proposals could make it far easier for authoritarian governments to control and suppress dissidents or unruly populations.

Of course there are some serious issues with online criminality that we need to address, but as Professor Jonathan Zittrain, author of “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It”, points out, the way to do so is not by implementing Draconian controls on technology and its users, but by using technologies to facilitate the power of open, online collaboration and innovate new solutions to new problems.

Many of us love working in high-tech roles and businesses precisely because of technology’s potential to change the way we work, play, learn, socialise, collaborate, connect and do business – continually challenging us to do things better, smarter and in completely new ways. I believe we must do all we can to preserve this spirit of progress, innovation and freedom.

Some claim activists are exaggerating.  It is presposterous to suggest such legislation or trade agreements would be interpreted, implemented or abused in the ways many opponents are warning, they say. It’ll never happen. Then again, before it happened, most of us would have said exactly the same about the Twitter joke trial.

Jim Mortleman is a business and technology writer/commentator, occasional comedy songwriter and long-time supporter of the Open Rights Group.
Enhanced by Zemanta