Love it or hate it, with an estimated 340 million tweets posted every day, Twitter is a global obsession. Many of these spontaneous utterings reach a tiny audience and are left benignly floating around cyber space. But a select few will be read, re-tweeted and within minutes have a global audience.
Twitter, along with Facebook, WordPress and YouTube, has been praised for democratizing the Internet. But social media has also opened up the Internet's potential as a Wild West where anonymous keyboard bandits roam, causing untold damage to reputation, unjustifiably infringing privacy and harassing victims.
For the younger generation, born into this world of social media, it is a blessing and a curse. Where once upon a time a baby's first toys were a rattle and a teddy, now they are a mobile phone and a mouse. But they don't come with safety instructions. If the guidelines mooted by the Director of Public Prosecutions can fill that lacuna, then they will serve as a truly valuable tool to protect us from others, and from ourselves.
Tom Daley, the GB diver and teen pin-up, knows about the dangers of social media all too well, having been on the receiving end of Twitter abuse more than once this summer. First, 17 year old Reece Messer was arrested in a dawn raid after accusing Daley via Twitter of letting down his recently deceased father. But the prospect of being bustled out of bed by the cops and enraging thousands of teenage girls failed to dissuade another troll, Daniel Thomas, from having a go.
Fortunately for Thomas, he escaped prosecution for his homophobic tweet. The DPP explained this Thursday that as the tweet was intended to be humorous (however 'misguided' the wit), no charges will be brought. This is consistent with the July 2012 Court of Appeal judgment in the 'Robin Hood' twitter case; Paul Chambers, who had threatened to blow Robin Hood airport 'sky high' after snow forced it to close, had his conviction overturned after the Court ruled the tweet obviously to be a joke.
But Thomas' tweet prompted the DPP to launch a public consultation on how to deal with offensive and abusive posts on social media sites. While a manual for the Internet may be very welcome, one wonders how it is going to work in practice; the problem with patrolling the Internet does not lie with a deficit of legislation but with how legislation should be enforced.
Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 prohibits the sending of 'grossly offensive' or 'indecent, obscene or menacing' messages. So criminal charges can be brought where the abuse is sufficiently significant and where it is in the public interest to do so. Someone in Daley's position could also rely on the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, making a complaint to the police or bringing civil proceedings for an injunction to prevent repeated harassment. Harassment will be established where there is a course of conduct - as few as two instances or more - where, broadly speaking, the perpetrator acts in a way to cause the recipient alarm or distress. And so Messer -- having sent more than one tweet to Daley - was handed a harassment warning by the Dorset coppers.
But how are the police and the CPS to cope with the vast number of posts that traverse the Internet? Whereas school yard snipes used to drop away at the school gate, now they are communicated by text, Twitter or Facebook night and day and day after day. They are capable of going viral and doing untold damage - so perhaps it is right that they land the sender with a criminal conviction. But it is always going to be a matter of degree. So if some handy manual were available, this could prove positive for all who use social networks.
It is true that manufacturers' instructions for assembling shelves often go unread. But even the most DIY-phobic of us know to point the drill away and not to hammer straight onto our knees. There is equally simple guidance for the internet. We must not forget that posting online is not a chat down the pub. Blinded by a desire to impress our friends, we forget who else might be online. Think of the Penn State students who stormed their college football field and rioted. The police only arrested two people on the day but, perhaps unsurprisingly, this changed after they were alerted to the somewhat rash 'I Rushed the Field After the OSU Game (And Lived!)' Facebook page.
The DPP wishes to provide guidance for social network gun slingers to keep them on the right side of the tracks. But what will a fair and workable solution to abuse actually look like? Will it be T&Cs-Max, a full-bodied yet summarised version of the various existing terms and conditions of social networking sites? Or will it be Law-Lite, with rules on how not to defame, harass, offend or invade privacy, but with no sanction to back them up? We do not yet know. But as this is being put out to public consultation, we are all empowered to have our say.
And it appears that that say is much needed. The British public reeled to the news of two policewomen lured to their death last Tuesday, after responding to a hoax emergency call. A 22-year old from Merseyside has been arrested after setting up a 'tribute' page to police officers' suspected killer.
Is that really what we want our social networking sites to be used for? When the DPP's public consultation is launched, we will all be able to have our say.