Britain’s communications laws need to be reformed to take account of the explosion in online communications wrought by broadband internet.
That is the conclusion of a report by civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, which claims that there were 6,329 people charged or cautioned under either the Communications Act of 2003 or the Malicious Communications Act of 1988 in the three years between November 2010 and November 2013.
Avon & Somerset Police head the table for the total number of charges and convictions under the two Acts, with Lancashire, Suffolk, Northumbria and Great Manchester Police also particularly active.
Big Brother Watch argues that in an age of semi-personal online communication via media such as Facebook and Twitter, the two Acts are outdated and stifling freedom of speech. Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003, it added, can be dated back to the Post Office (Amendment) Act of 1930, which was intended to reduce abuse of telephone operators in the days before automated exchanges.
It was followed by the Telecommunications Act 1984, which contains very similar wording to Section 127. This legislation enables a court to convict you based on whether it deems a message to be ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’. “It is arguable that the outdated nature of the law is why we are seeing an increase in legal cases involving comments made on social media,” claims the report.
Guidelines drawn up to govern the prosecution of social media cases did not address the key concerns, claims Big Brother Watch.
The two main problems with Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003, claims the organisation, is that it was drafted to deal with one-to-one communications, rather than one-to-many, but was nevertheless extended into the social media area by case law. It was also originally aimed at public utilities, but has been extended to cover any communications company, including social media service providers.
Big Brother Watch has called for the repeal of Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003 and the removal of the phrase “grossly offensive” from the Malicious Communications Act of 1988. 
“The phrase ‘grossly offensive’ is highly subjective and causes more problems than it solves. More importantly it shouldn’t be a crime to cause offence. The wording sets a very dangerous precedent, without a clear definition it is very difficult to ensure a standardised approach across police forces in the types of cases that require their attention,” it concludes.
The report, wrote John Cooper QC in the foreword, highlighted “in clear terms the problems that the present criminal law has with adapting to the fresh and vibrant world of social media”. He added that there was an “urgent need for a rationalisation of existing law to reflect the new mediums at a time when cash-strapped police forces across the country are struggling to cope with social media-related complaints”.
Cooper noted that writer Sir John Betjeman might well have been facing charges under current communications laws for his poem “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough” if he had published it on Facebook.

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