This summer, we as internet users experienced a landmark in online freedom and, even more importantly, common sense has prevailed. In what has been referred to as the Twitter Joke Trial, Paul Chambers was arrested by anti-terrorist police, prosecuted, and convicted for sending a “menacing” tweet. He was forced to pay nearly £1,000 and subsequently lost his job. The tweet? “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!!” Hardly seems worth the fuss, does it? Thankfully, many people including legal commentators and celebrities rallied against his conviction, presumably for the reason that it was simply ridiculous. General consensus was, here was the beginning signs of a push towards online censorship. Chambers’s conviction was quashed on the 27th July when the tweet was finally recognised to have been a joke and not a terrorist threat. For now, it seems, the interwebs is safe for comedians once again.
However, since this victory for Paul Chambers, another Twitter incident has since brought in to questions the limits to the freedom of internet speech. After Tom Daley missed out on a medal in the men’s synchronised 10m platform diving event, Twitter user Rileyy69 took to the internet to express his displeasure. The first abuse Daley suffered was the message “You let your dad down i hope you know that.” – Daley’s father passed away last year from brain cancer. After Daley re-tweeted this charming message and legions of fans rose to harangue his assailant, Rileyy69 decided to apologise. However, this feeble attempt at backtracking was refuted when he continued to abuse Daley and his followers, including one tweet that threatened to drown Daley in a pool. Despicable as this is, this kind of abuse is commonplace on the internet (aimed at both celebrities and civilians), and it is presumably fuelled by the seeming anonymity of sites and the lack of serious reproach. What was unusual in this case was that the 17 year old Rileyy69 was later arrested by police, before being given a warning and bailed.
Naturally, comparisons have been drawn between this occasion and the Twitter Joke Trial, with people claiming that the tweet was not a serious threat. However, death threats are never funny whether they are carried out or not, and it certainly carried malicious intent. What seems to confuse people is the difference between ‘real life’ and the internet – if Rileyy69 had abused and threatened Daley in person it is likely he would have had to deal with the law, but on the internet it doesn’t count, right? Erm, no.
Online bullying (and so it should be called, rather than branded as jovial “trolling”) is a serious issue, and one that needs addressing. The Daley incident shows just the tip of the iceburg – many internet users face incessant, repeated abuse from multiple people. Often, not much is done about it, whether from site moderators or other users, and particularly not by the police force. Indeed, I struggled to believe that, had a similar tweet been directed to me, police would have even batted an eyelid. But then I’m not a national hero.
I do believe that arresting Rileyy69 was a step too far. But that’s not because I feel that he was exercising his freedom of speech. Those who confuse his actions with being on a par with the lighthearted joke of Paul Chambers need to face the fact that just because something is said online, that doesn’t mean it ‘doesn’t count’. In these internet-fuelled times, we have to accept that when we are online, we are just as much in the real world as anywhere else. Our actions and words have consequences and, while common sense should always dictate what these consequences are, bullies and all round horrible people should not get off scot free. No, we should not censor the internet, but nor should be allow it to descend into lawless anarchy.