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UK official says popular tweeters could be prosecuted for "grossly offensive" tweets

A UK official has said that popular tweeters are more likely to face prosecution for "grossly offensive" tweets than those with only a few dozen followers, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Speaking at conference in London today, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Kier Starmer, said how big a person's "reach" is on social media should affect prosecution decisions made by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The news follows concerns over free speech after recent reports that police are increasingly cracking down on people who post offensive material online. In July, 17-year-old Daniel Tomas from Dorset was arrested for abusing Tom Daley on Twitter, following his fourth place in the Olympic men's synchronised diving event. The CPS dropped the case against Tomas because he had only around a hundred followers, Starmer told an audience of Internet executives.

Other similar incidents saw Matthew Wood arrested for posting "jokes" on Facebook about missing girls April Jones and Madeleine McCann, whereas Azhar Ahmed was detained for writing that British soldiers should "go to hell" and received a community sentence.

The cases have all involved section 127 of the Communications Act, which outlaws sending "grossly offensive" messages over telecoms networks. The law was passed in 2003 - before the era of Facebook and Twitter.

Starmer said the DPP would issue new guidelines that are likely to restrict the circumstances under which section 127 will be used to prosecute but stood firm that it would not be revised or repealed. He said that intent was a big issue behind what was deemed "grossly offensive".

"If you send a message to the family of April Jones one hour after they have been told their little girl is dead, that is very different to you sending an email to your mate," he said.

As well as national governments, social media networks have come under increasing pressure to censor offensive content. Last month, Twitter agreed to remove anti-Semitic tweets circulating on its service in France following the threat of legal action by a Jewish student group.

Around the same time, the site also shut down an account used by a German neo-Nazi group at the request of German police.