UK government to develop social media laws that protect freedom of speech

The UK must introduce new social media measures that protect free speech while appropriately responding to online harassment and threats, the director of public prosecutions has said.

Following a rash of social media-related prosecutions, new guidelines surrounding how to treat and police social media must be discussed, Keir Starmer QC, the top prosecutor in England and Wales, told the BBC. The public right to be offensive “has to be protected” and UK laws must therefore be reviewed, he said.

Earlier this week, a teenager was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison after writing ‘offensive’ comments about missing girl April Jones. During the London Olympics this summer, a series of social media-related punishments were doled out, with at least one Twitter user arrested for sending abusive tweets and several athletes expelled from their Olympic teams.

Discussions about the updated laws will be led by the Crown Prosecution Service and will include lawyers, experts, and representatives from the likes of Twitter and Facebook, with new measures due to be in place before the end of the year.

"The emerging thinking is that it might be sensible to divide and separate cases where there's a campaign of harassment, [or] cases where there's a credible and general threat, and prosecute in those sorts of cases,” said Starmer. "And put in another category communications which are, as it were, merely offensive or grossly offensive.”

According to the prosecutor, the aim is to develop a set of guidelines that will allow authorities to more easily and effectively work within the parameters of the law, while introducing options other than criminal prosecution.

"The threshold for prosecution has to be high," Starmer said. "We live in a democracy, and if free speech is to be protected there has to be a high threshold.”

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