Keir Starmer is not a name commonly thrown around in the social media world, but he's quite a big deal. As the Director of Public Prosecutions, he oversees pretty much all public prosecutions in the UK - and now he's decided to get involved in the murky legal waters of Twitter and Facebook.
The top legal dog has become fed up with all the inconsistency of social media judgements and court cases, so he's looking into Twitter and Facebook taking greater responsibility for monitoring and removing any content that could potentially end up in a court cast. The number of cases stemming from social media is growing, leading to concerns the police and judicial system will be unable to handle the volume.
The widespread use of Facebook and Twitter, by both the masses and those blessed with celebrity status, means any legal issues often grab a lot of salacious tabloid attention. New legal precedents are being set at an unprecedented rate (pun most certainly intended).
These can range from the odd ruling by the ASA, say against TOWIE stars unethically flogging haircuts, to scarily outrageous rulings on tweets taken out of context. The now infamous case of Paul Chambers is widely cited. Chamblers, having arrived at a closed airport, tweeted out of frustration "You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" In a victory for common sense, his guilty verdict was overturned.
The Guardian also notes several one-off rulings on Facebook and Twitter usage. These range from a 240 hours community service sentence for a user posting 'joke' Facebook updates about the deaths of soldiers, to a 12 week jail sentence for another user posting jokes about missing child April Jones.
There's heaps more. The case of @UnSteveDorkland, a spoof account of a Northcliffe Media's chief executive, and @Rileyy_69, a 17 year old who was arrested for posting offensive tweets at Olympian Tom Daley, to name a few.
The legal world is still catching up to social media, and the web generally. The Digital Economy Act, first conceived to combat piracy, is a separate but relevant case in point. Starmer's response is to prepare new guidelines that outline how social media sites can do more in policing and removing offensive content. This assumes a user will be appeased if they see an offensive piece of content removed very quickly, once it is reported. Quite an assumption.
This idea makes sense in theory, but let us think about it logically. The sheer volume of Facebook and Twitter usage makes timely policing very difficult for the companies. Facebook currently has over 1 billion users worldwide (although a decent chunk of them are seemingly fake), and over 340 million tweets are posted every day. Monitoring abuse reports for these volumes of content is a big job, and would require a big team at either company. Facebook has a team based in Dublin to review reported abuse and remove pages "very quickly", while a recent update to Twitter's user policy makes "direct, repeated attacks on an individual a possible violation". However, there doesn't cover the occasional racist or homophobia tweet by a user. How much time and resource can Twitter and Facebook be expected to put into 'policing'?
Starmer's proposed guidelines are a step in the right direction, and certainly a move towards more established regulations around Twitter and Facebook. The key issue is getting an established precedent that brings consistency to rulings that are otherwise knee-jerk responses, often influenced by public interest.
The fact remains, wherever there's a free, easily accessible service they'll always be a handful of users who'll abuse it. There's no policing that.