With the ever-growing popularity of social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram it is important to take a step back and consider how you use them. You need to make sure that you and your children not only control the personal information that is put onto social media but also your behaviour on such sites.
Control your information online
Be aware of the potential for cyber-enabled fraud. Fraudsters can use information obtained from such sites to commit identity theft. Telling everyone about your forthcoming holiday may also be an advance initiation to a burglar – it is surprising how much information we reveal about ourselves over a period of time.
If you have children you also need to be aware of the dangers of persons contacting them and then grooming your child, building an emotional attachment to them with a view to a meeting for the purpose of sexual abuse or exploitation.
Many online games allow for messaging between users – do you know who your child is talking to?
Control your behaviour
Many offences can be committed in the heat of the moment, or drink, the typing of a comment that cannot then be taken back.
Trolling, or sending abusive messages online, can be an offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003, with stiff penalties in both cases.
Revenge porn, for example publishing intimate images of an ex-partner without their consent, is now a criminal offence and often results in a prison sentence.
What may seem to be banter may actually be offensive, what may be intended to be seen by a few could be seen by thousands.
A fake social networking profile or account may also be a criminal offence in certain circumstances.
What about freedom of speech?
This is not an absolute right and may be restricted where necessary and proportionate.
Think it couldn’t happen to you?
Remember the Robin Hood Airport case? A young man made what he intended to be a jokey comment about blowing up the airport if he couldn’t make his flight due to adverse weather.
He found himself in court, was convicted by magistrates, and again on appeal before finally his conviction was quashed at a second High Court appeal. By then he had already lost his job as a consequence of the conviction.
What are the consequences?
Social media has even recently been blamed for an increase in knife crime as it can amplify the effect of violence. Accordingly, online offences are being dealt with seriously.
Last year the Crown Prosecution Service updated its policy statements in order to take account of the increase in online abuse, saying that individuals need to appreciate they can’t go online and press a button without any consequences.
At the other end of the spectrum, saying something unpopular or unpleasant is not unlawful, people’s sensitivities need to be balanced with free speech, and we see reported a number of cases that cause us concern.
This tide of sensitivity could result in people pleading guilty when in fact they are not – always take early advice.
How can we help?
If you need further advice in respect of any potential criminal matter please contact John Howey on 020 7388 1658 or email email@example.comRead More
A recently issued guidance note from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has sparked a very carefully worded debate about the fine balance of social media, personal comment and the implications a solicitor’s private opinions may have for their professional careers if they spill over into public forums.
The guidance includes reference to the appropriate conduct to be adhered to in practice and professional scenarios, which one would hope are adhered to out of general common sense and decency, but what seems to have prompted the publication is the section dealing with solicitors and their conduct outside of practice.
Although most solicitors do indeed uphold the professional standards expected of them there are times when the SRA has to intervene following complaints by members of the public. Given the potential sanctions, which include exclusion from practice as well as heavy costs and fines, it is of great importance that solicitors know how to avoid falling foul of the SRA when using social media.
One recent example which has featured in the Law Society Gazette was the case of Majid Mahmood who was fined £25,000, suspended from practice for 12 months and ordered to pay £9,500 in costs. His punishment was issued for posting offensive comments on Facebook about shooting ‘Zionists’ and blowing up the ‘chosen people’. To make matters worse Mr Mahmood went on to tell other users to ‘go and fuck yourself’ when it was suggested his comments would be reported to the SRA.
The comments were not made in any professional capacity, nor did Mr Mahmood explicitly state that as a solicitor his opinion did or should carry any additional gravity. However, a hyperlink to his name showed that his job title was a ‘senior solicitor’ with his then employer. The offending posts were removed as apparently was the entire Facebook account.
This case highlights the importance that the SRA and Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal place on maintaining the integrity of the profession to such a high standard that solicitor’s private lives are also potentially subject to heavy scrutiny.
We do not in any way condone Mr Mahmood comments or the subsequent argument with those seeking to challenge him but it does raise the question as to where the line should be drawn in relation to both freedom of information and privacy & family life.
The rise of social media and the ease with which we access it on a daily basis means that it is now easier than ever to express our opinions, whether popular or not. Although Mr Mahmood was not hiding behind a pseudonym or anonymity there are many who do and many who use that cloak to make comments and threats even more offensive than those referred to here.
In its guidance, the SRA reminds solicitors that the principles that have to be upheld outside practice are the administration of justice, public trust and integrity. We would all do well to abide by the recommendation to conduct ourselves with integrity rather than perpetuating online abuse which quite frankly the majority of society would not tolerate, permit or spout in the real world.
The legal profession is one which most of its members are proud to be part of and who would not act contrary to the SRA guidance; issuing this guidance could be seen as somewhat draconian bearing in mind the many other issues the profession faces.
New guidelines were published on 21st August by the DPP on how to proceed with ‘hate crimes’ suggesting that the CPS has formally recognised the far-reaching impact online ‘hate crimes’ may have. In response to this problem, they have promised to prosecute such crimes as robustly as offline ‘hate crimes’.
To achieve this aim, the CPS will rely on a revised guidance on the prosecution of social media cases. This guidance is to be used by prosecutors tasked with making a charging decision and/or to advise the police on their investigation.
The guidance makes clear that all forms of online communication, including emails, text, pictures, retweets and sharing on social media platforms, are covered. There is greater recognition of the diverse types of online ‘hate crimes’. For example, individuals who encourage grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false communication through tweets/retweets, creation of derogatory hashtags or doxing may be charged of a criminal offence under section 44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007.
Cyberstalking in ‘hate crime’
“Cyberstalking”, although not a criminal offence in its own right, is a form of online harassment and may be used as an outlet to exert power and control in committing Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) offences. The guidance sets out a number of examples of cyberstalking including ‘baiting’, posting ‘photoshopped’/altered images of complainants online, creating false profiles on social media, hacking, monitoring and controlling the complainant’s accounts. Threats of serious injury or rape on women have previously been communicated by sending a picture or a video of another being subjected to such assaults.
If a prosecutor makes a decision not to prosecute, they are reminded to advise on whether it is appropriate for other orders be applied for, such as Prevention Orders, Criminal Behaviour Orders, Restraining Orders and Domestic Violence Protection Notices and Domestic Violence Protection Orders, as a means to restrain a person from their use of social media.
Encouragement is also given to persons subjected to abuse online to report the abuse to the police and/or to the social media platform, and to retain evidence by taking screenshots of the offensive communication.
Whilst this guidance does not reflect a change in the law, it does signal a change in approach by the CPS to these types of offences. It will only become clear in the next few months whether the CPS and the police will adopt a proportionate approach to the prosecution of these offences.
Please contact us on 0207 388 1658, or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to discuss any criminal matter with us further. We have a dedicated team of lawyers specialising in crime who are here to help you.
Cheryl Low, Solicitor