British police forces arrested at least nine people a day for “offensive” online comments last year.
Figures obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that 3,395 people across 29 forces were arrested last under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it illegal to intentionally “cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another”, in 2016.
The true figure is likely to be significantly higher, as thirteen police forces refused to provide the requested information and two did not provide usable data.
Around half of the investigations were abandoned before being brought to prosecution, which critics say is an indication that the authorities are being excessively strict in their interpretation of the law’s restrictions on freedom of speech.
Nevertheless, many forces have massively stepped up their focus on so-called trolls, with the number of arrests by West Midlands Police having increased by an astonishing 877 per cent since 2014.
With Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s announcement of a special national police hub focused on online hate last week, it is expected that these numbers will only increase.
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “the problem is ‘grossly offensive’ is not something you should normally be prosecuted for. It’s not showing harm to other people. It’s not showing that somebody is being … attacked or threatened.”
The seeming inconsistency in the enforcement of free speech restrictions has also been a source of contention, with the Metropolitan Police — who detained 867 people in 2016, according to the Times figures — appearing reluctant to investigate people such as Nadia Chan, the self-described Islamist who was revealed as having made a number of deeply racist remarks about white people on social media after an appearance on public broadcaster Channel 4.
Chan branded Israeli Jews “parasites” and ranted that white people were “swine” and “pasty bland bitches [who] have NO culture, no rich history, you ain’t shit, ur ancestors were cave ppl”. She also openly endorsed terror attacks on Iranian state network Press TV — but the Met refused to say whether they would bring charges against her.
Literally thousands of people urged the Met Contact Centre on Twitter to investigate Chan, but the force did not appear to offer any public response, and individuals who contacted the account privately claim they were told the force would not accept any reports unless the complainants came to a police station in person.
BBC Video by Racist Trans Model Brands White People ‘Most Violent and Oppressive Force of Nature on Earth’. https://t.co/2oe2UCwUic
— Jack Montgomery ن (@JackBMontgomery) October 13, 2017
Similarly, people who reported mixed race transgender model Munroe Bergdorf for saying “the white race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on earth” in a segment produced and aired by the publicly-funded BBC — an apparent violation of the laws against ‘inciting racial hatred’ — were met with official indifference.
The Met seemed to indicate that it was not interested in investigating Bergdorf in online responses to members of the public, referring them to the complaints form for broadcast regulator Ofcom instead.