Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Justice Minister Avoids Questions on Social Media

On may 20 2013 I put the following question to David Ford MLA in his capacity as Justice Minister for Northern Ireland:
1. Has sectarianism grown new legs through the misuse and abuse of social media? Are there effectively new online interface areas? 
2. What is the scale of the  challenge posed by social media to the PSNI? 
3. My figures obtained under FOI, relating to the number or social media incidents reported to the police, have shown exponential growth since 2010 - the number of prosecutions is also quote high. Therefore I ask, what guidelines are police using before:
i. Responding to reports of misuse and abuse
ii. Making an arrest following said report of misuse and abuse 
4. What standard are the prosecution services in Northern Ireland using before deciding to prosecute and individual?

5. What has changed since the February 5 2013 plenary session on social media regulation? 
6. Since February 5 2013 have you spoken with either Chris Grayling or Maria Miller? 
7. Of the options before you do you lean towards either: 
i. Tightening controls such as bringing in censorship measures?
ii. Bringing in new criminal controls as has been suggested by Pat Rabitte for ROI?
iii. Self-regulation and Educating people, especially young people in schools (as per here)? 
8. Do you intend to bring forward to Northern Ireland specific guidance for arrests and prosecutions relating to social media - or do you intend to use guidance produced by Keir Starmer (now stepping down from CPS)?
I received a response from the Office of the Justice Minister on June 12 2013. None of my questions were actually answered. And I won't have anyone suggest that I didn't ask them as presented above; so below is a screen grab of the original email I sent with relevant addresses redacted.

Questions 5 - 8 are in the image below:

I should note that after sending the above questions I sent a further email to clarify that I knew that Stormont does not have competence to regulate the internet, as per image below. This was just to clarify any possible uncertainty and to prevent any time wastage in the responses.

So below is the response from David Ford's Office [original document in full here]. I've highlighted some parts that are at least a little interesting. I've also made side notes where appropriate: 
"You posed a number of questions by email regarding the use of social media. Several of your questions relate to PSNI operational issues and I suggest you may wish to seek responses directly.  
As you are aware I responded to a debate in the Assembly on 5 February where many of the issues you raise were discussed."  
This is a reference to the Assembly debate (transcript here) which I wrote about prior and subsequent to the actual sitting here and here respectively.
"I should start by highlighting that the regulation of the internet is not an issue which falls within the responsibilities of the devolved government. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 it is specifically recorded as a reserved issue, no doubt reflecting the global nature of such communication. Decisions on regulation are for central government. There are no plans to change this situation."
I was and am fully aware of this point of law. I referred to it in my communications with his Office when I sent my 8 questions on May 20 2013. I also explained this point of law on February 12 in an essay for entitled, ‘Slow brew approach necessary for policing social media’. That essay being an analysis of the February 5 Assembly hearing as well as of other events to date. Any way, the Office continued:
"Offences committed by means of social media can touch on a wide range of legislation. Sending a message via a public electronic communications network that is grossly offensive or menacing or for the purposes of causing annoyance or anxiety where the message is known to be false are offences under the Communications Act 2003.  
Anyone convicted for these summary offences is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a maximum of 6 months or to a fine or to both. 
Undoubtedly, social media can be a channel open to misuse by those who wish to direct attacks at others, whether those attacks are of a sectarian or political nature, but we have seen successful prosecutions in Northern Ireland. On the other side of the coin we need to recognise the positive campaigns that use social media to inform and change mindsets.  
Where people post or send messages that are judged to be grossly offensive, or of an obscene or menacing nature, then they are guilty of an offence under the Communications Act 2003.
Where the police believe that offences have been committed under the Communications Act, they will pursue charges.  
Any changes to this legislation are not for my Department, but it should be remembered that the Northern Ireland legislative framework makes a number of other, effective, offences and penalties available.  
Where comments constitute threats to kill, then the maximum penalty available is 10 years imprisonment, or indeed, where an assessment of dangerousness is made, indefinite imprisonment, with release at the discretion of the Parole Commissioners. 
Where comments target specific individuals, and where these constitute an offence under our harassment legislation, penalties of up to 7 years imprisonment are available, subject to the nature and seriousness of the offence 
Where comments breach hate crime legislation, penalties of up to 7 years are available, and there are a range of offences for which, where they are shown to be motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, maximum penalties available are increased.
I hope these comments clearly set out the current position."
Ok. The text above does nothing but explain the law as it exists currently in Northern Ireland. Something I'm fully aware of - note in particular my essay for, 'Social Media and the Law: Where Do We Stand in Northern Ireland?'

So, where to now? Respond to the Office for the Justice Minister and pursue answers to the questions posed as presented above.

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