Social networking and the law

Not only could your angry status update or online rant hurt someone's feelings, it could even get you arrested. Know the laws about social networking before you hit 'send'.

boy with tablet

Your status may be illegal as well as funny

Step away from the keyboard! That tweet you were just about to send might be hilaaarrrious – but it might also be illegal.

A rash of young people have recently been through court for comments they’ve made on the internet. Their crimes include:

So how do you vent without getting handcuffed? Here are some golden rules to follow.

Don’t be grossly offensive, particularly about sensitive topics

What does ‘grossly offensive’ mean though? And what counts as ‘sensitive’? The truth is no one really knows right now. While one person might get away with saying shocking things, another could end up in court when the law cracks down to make a point. This is why you need to be careful.

Going on recent evidence, if you’re commenting on a subject in the news, be careful – even if you’re only joking. Your dark humour may not be seen as funny. And, remember – on Twitter especially – your twisted joke could be seen by anyone.

How NOT to do it:

After schoolgirl April Jones was abducted in Wales, 20-year-old Matthew Woods made a joke about it on Facebook. He was jailed for 12 weeks for his offensive comments, while 20-year-old Azhar Ahmed was given community service and a fine for criticising soldiers in Afghanistan on Facebook.

Don’t be a troll

Yes. We know. The online world is chock-a-block full of people calling other people fat, stupid, ugly etc. But, beside the obvious point that THIS IS MEAN, harassing someone online (known as ‘trolling’) is legally shady, too.

“It’s extremely easy for police to trace you,” says David Allen Green, legal journalist and lawyer. “You’re not anonymous online. If you’re causing trouble, Twitter or Facebook will hand your IP address over on request.”

So no matter how much someone is peeing you off – whether they’re famous, or someone at college you just frickin’ can’t stand – stick to the age-old rule of ‘If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it at all’.

How NOT to do it:

When Olympic diver Tom Daley received a stream of mean comments on Twitter the police were at the 17-year-old perpetrator’s house within hours.

Don’t joke about riots or terrorism (or anything ‘scary’ for that matter)

It’s not our fault the law has no sense of humour. And ‘but it was only a joke’ rarely stands up in court. Irony doesn’t always translate in publishing, so if you write anything where someone might not get that it’s a joke you could be in trouble.

The Communications Act 2003 says that anything published that is ‘menacing’ – and therefore likely to upset an average Joe – could be an offence.

How NOT to do it:

Paul Chambers went to legal hell and back after jokingly tweeting he would blow up an airport. And tough ‘incitement to riot’ sentences were doled out after the London riots of 2011.

Never name a rape victim. EVER.

Rape is an emotive and misunderstood crime. However – whatever your views – you should never, under any circumstances, publically identify the victim. Not even if the defendants are found not guilty. Rape victims have the right to remain anonymous for their entire lifetime. The law exists to encourage rape victims to come forward and report what happened to them without fear of identification.

How NOT to do it

After a footballer was jailed for five years for raping a teenage girl, many of his team’s supporters named her on Twitter. They were promptly arrested and a couple have since been charged.

Am I really at risk of breaking the law online?

You don’t have to agree with these laws, and may think they’re the dumbest thing ever. Many think you should be able to say whatever the hell you like online. We live in a free country, right? Also, people get away with saying horrific stuff online all the time. Why can’t you?

The trouble is the law is constantly changing and you don’t want to suddenly become a test case. The reality is you have no idea if your tweet is the one that’s picked up on.

“Just because you didn’t know the law, doesn’t mean the law will treat you any differently if you break it,” says David. “What people need to realise is that social media is not a safe place and getting a criminal record could destroy your future career.”

If you’re desperate to vent, leave it for one sleep and see if you’re still desperate the next morning. It’s more than likely you’ll have cooled down and may be able to see the potential problems of writing ‘I’M COMING TO KILL YOU’ on your ex-boyfriend’s Facebook wall.

Photo of boy with tablet by Shutterstock

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015