The number of people arrested in London for so-called “online crimes of speech”, mainly made on social media, has shot up in the past few years.
Six hundred and twenty-five arrests were made for online speech crimes in 2010, rising to 857 in 2015 — a 37 per cent increase in just five years. The shocking data was released in a freedom of information request made to the Metropolitan Police, reported by The Register.
Offenders were targeted with Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003, which covers offensive and threatening messages sent over a “public” electronic communications network – a law which has increasingly been used to arrest and prosecute for tweets and Facebook posts since 2010.
The law criminalises “using [a] public electronic communications network in order to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety,” and can result in a six-month prison term or fine of up to £5,000.
After more than 3,000 section 127 cases were heard in court in 2012, new guidelines were published by the then-Director of Public Prosecutions. The Times reported just last year that prosecutions had declined “dramatically” as a result.
However, the new data proves this not to be the case:
Arrests for section 127 online speech crimes continued to decline gradually until 2013, but shot back up in 2015. A whopping 857 section 127 arrests were made last year – up almost 100 per cent on two years previously.
And the number is likely to keep on rising as this week the EU announced that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft had “committed” to working more closely with them and national governments and “their law enforcement agencies” to help “criminalise” perceived “illegal hate speech” online.
Section 127 was the law used to prosecute James McConnell, the Northern Irish Pastor charged with making “grossly offensive” remarks about Islam during a sermon broadcast online in 2014.
He was subjected to an 18-month police investigation and criminal prosecution, eventually being found not guilty at the beginning of this year.
In 2011, a Scottish football fan was sentenced to eight months in prison for insulting Celtic fans, Catholics and the Pope on a Facebook page under section 127.
During sentencing, the sheriff told the defendant that “the right-thinking people of Glasgow and Scotland” would not tolerate his views being expressed online.
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