Monday, 23 December 2013

Attorney General Lays Down the Law for Social Media

Attorney General Lays Down the Law for Social Media image attorney general twittersThe pace of social media’s explosion is too fast for the law to keep up with breaches of privacy, defamation or contempt of court. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other popular social sites are populated by masses who are either ignorant of real world laws or they have a wanton disregard for them.

Some people who are informed have fallen foul of the law on social networks because of naivety – thinking that the same laws don’t apply online.

Several high profile cases in the past couple of years have increased debate about the need for jurisdictional controls on social networks. A lawless society, even on social media, is no good for anyone.

  • Ryan Giggs was embroiled in a scandal in May 2011 when he was identified by more than 75,000 Twitter users as the footballer who had taken out an injunction to prevent revelations of him having an affair. Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming used Parliamentary privilege to break the injunction and announce his name in Parliament – this was to speak out in defence of the Twitter users.

  • Peaches Geldof got herself in trouble for tweeting the identities of mothers convicted in the Ian Watkins paedophile case. She saw the identities online and assumed they were in the public domain when they should not have been.

  • Sally Bercow, the wannabe-celebrity wife of MP John Bercow, ended up paying a reported £15,000 compensation to Lord McAlpine after she defamed him on Twitter.

The famous, defamers, namers and shamers

Famous people getting into trouble on Twitter is, perhaps, easy to deal with. The are easily identifiable, so when they do something wrong it is easy to take action against them.

Ordinary people are a different matter. Many are anonymous, or they at least think they are. This assumed anonymity, coupled with some ignorance of the law and the false sense of security when posting to a computer, has meant a serious testing of the laws. Not forgetting, of course, that the UK’s laws have a geographic limitation.

  • Paul Chambers was convicted (overturned after three appeals) of breaching the Communications Act 2003 when he posted a joke tweet threatening to blow up John Lennon Airport.

  • Several people were prosecuted after the 2011 London riots for using Facebook to incite rioting. In some cases, even where no trouble ensued.

Attorney General tries to set boundaries

The Attorney General, The Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP, has announced that his office is going to publish guidelines for all users of social media. Announcing on Twitter and on the website, Mr Grieve said, “This is not about telling people what they can or cannot talk about on social media; quite the opposite in fact, it’s designed to help facilitate commentary in a lawful way.

“I hope that by making this information available to the public at large, we can help stop people from inadvertently breaking the law, and make sure that cases are tried on the evidence, not what people have found online.”

Guidance for companies and individuals on social media

This is not legal advice, but here are some legal areas that all companies should be aware of. Employees who break laws on social media in the name of their employer could also lay the company open to legal problems.


The UK defamation law is going through changes, but the notion of what is defamation will essentially be the same. If you defame someone (also called libel in writing, slander when it’s spoken), you are disparaging their reputation or reducing their ability to earn money.

Blake Lapthorn: Explaining defamation, libel and slander.

Contempt of court

Contempt of court is essentially where somebody is deemed to have interfered with the administration of justice. An example of this would be where the juror in a trial is tweeting about the trial while it is going on.

Find Law: Contempt of court


Copyright exists in any creative work, including writing, photos, drawings, paintings and even quotations. Copyright is automatic in the UK and it is designed to protect anything you create from being copied without your permission.

Intellectual Property Office: Types of copyright

Take George Clooney’s advice?

If you want to avoid all this, of course, you could take George Clooney’s advice. He told Esquire Magazine that any celebrity posting on Twitter is a “moron”.

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