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Twitter messages within scope of UK communications laws, High Court rules

Messages posted on Twitter come within the scope of UK communications laws, regardless of whether they are read by people who 'follow' the author or by others following a "subsequent search" for the "content", the High Court has ruled.27 Jul 2012

The High Court said that a tweet is a 'message' at the time it is posted and is therefore subject to the Communications Act. It rejected the argument that because it is visible over a social media platform it is no more than 'content' rather than a message.

The Court made the determination in a ruling where it overturned the criminal conviction of a man who had tweeted that he was going to blow up an airport in England. The man claimed that the message was a joke.

In 2010 Paul Chambers was fined £385, ordered to pay £600 in legal costs and found guilty of a criminal offence under the Communications Act over a posting he made on Twitter. Chambers' message read: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Under the Communications Act it is an offence if someone "sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character".

An off-duty member of airport staff had found Chambers' tweet following a "search", and Chambers' lawyers had claimed that this meant the material should have been regarded as "'content' created and published on a social media platform rather than a message sent by means of a communications network." However, the High Court, in supporting the view of Doncaster Crown Court, rejected this claim.

"The potential recipients of the message were the public as a whole, consisting of all sections of society," the High Court said. "It is immaterial that [Chambers] may have intended only that his message should be read by a limited class of people, that is, his followers, who, knowing him, would be neither fearful nor apprehensive when they read it."

"In our judgment, whether one reads the 'tweet' at a time when it was read as 'content' rather than 'message', at the time when it was posted it was indeed 'a message' sent by an electronic communications service for the purposes of [the Communications Act]," it said. "Accordingly 'Twitter' falls within its ambit."

However, the High Court overturned Doncaster Crown Court's finding that Chambers' 'tweet' had been menacing. Chambers had not made a guilty act, it ruled.

The High Court said that the context of the message, the fact it was sent via Twitter, the fact none of Chambers' Twitter 'followers' had "reported the threat" and the "lack of urgency" shown by the police in investigating the issue, showed that the message was not menacing in character.

"The more one reflects on it, the clearer it becomes that this message did not represent a terrorist threat, or indeed any other form of threat," the Court said. "The language and punctuation are inconsistent with the writer intending it to be or to be taken as a serious warning."

"Although we are accustomed to very brief messages by terrorists to indicate that a bomb or explosive device has been put in place and will detonate shortly, it is difficult to image a serious threat in which warning of it is given to a large number of tweet 'followers' in ample time for the threat to be reported and extinguished," it said. "It seems to us unsurprising, but not irrelevant, that none of those who read the message during the first days after it appeared thought anything of it.

"No evidence was provided to suggest that even minimal consequential protective measures were taken at the airport, or that the level of perceived threat was heightened. Indeed, notwithstanding the nature of the 'threat', we can detect no urgent response to it. Police action was not exactly hurried," the Court said.

In a tweet reacting to the verdict David Allen Green, the lawyer who represented Chambers in the appeal, said that Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer, was "disgraceful" in making the "personal decision to oppose the appeal" and described the prosecution itself as "shameful".