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Should Being a Racist Dick on the Internet Be Illegal?

In defense of the world wide web's tactless sociopaths.
March 23, 2012, 3:20pm

This week in the UK, two young men who—to varying degrees—have been insensitive on the internet, recently appeared in court. One of them was Azhar Ahmed, a 19-year-old from Ravensthorpe in West Yorkshire who had suggested on his Facebook wall that: “all soldiers should DIE and go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SCUM!” in reaction to the news that six more British servicemen had lost their lives in Afghanistan. Here are Ahmed's comments in full:

The other guy was Liam Stacey, a 21-year-old, rugby-playing biology student from South Wales. On the Saturday just gone, Stacey found footballer Fabrice Muamba's mid-game heart attack so hilarious he decided to tweet: “LOL, Fuck Muamba. He's dead !!! #Haha”, followed by a plethora of racism that makes a Fleshlight look classy. Stacey decided it was best not to limit his comments to the young family man who, for all he knew at the time, could have just died on the pitch. So he also took aim at black people in general. Here's a selection of Stacey's work:

And here are some of Liam Stacey's attempts at groveling once the Twitter morality police were on his tail and he realized he might be in trouble:

Clearly, they're a pair of cunts. But, is being a cunt illegal? I'm pretty sure being a cunt falls under free speech. Should writing some horrible crap on your Twitter or Facebook really be the kind of thing that can land you in prison? Am I going to go to jail for RT'ing one of Jimmy Carr's shit, snide, vaguely racist jokes? What's going on, the internet, I thought I lived in a free world?!?!?!

I'm not an expert in much, so I called Padraig Reidy, News Editor at**Index on Censorship**. In a roundabout way, we managed to work through the legal minefield of these two cases, and talked about other stuff, like why you shouldn't say things like: “I want to stamp on your face, you stupid fucking idiot!” to another internet user unless you're 100 percent sure you want to go to jail.

Case One: Azhar Ahmed

Azhar Ahmed, outside court on Tuesday.

Although the "racially aggravated" part of Azhar Ahmed's charge was dropped, there were still question marks over whether or not Ahmed's words should be considered illegal. Padraig suggested that, “If there are any curbs on speech, it would have to involve very direct incitement of violence. I don't think Azhar Ahmed was anywhere near incitement to violence. Anti-armed forces stuff actually gets said a lot, but because it's in a public space—like Facebook, which is somewhere between publishing and everyday social space—it becomes seen as sending a message to the world.”

Demonstrators outside court ready to greet Azhar Ahmed. NB: That is a really scary placard.

And Padraig makes a good point. I don't think it's surprising that Azhar Ahmed (he pleaded not guilty, by the way) was met with a group of angry protesters on Tuesday when he attended Dewsbury Magistrates Court for his preliminary hearing. But ultimately, he didn't actually threaten anyone—as Padraig says, "soldiers" is "far too broad a term” to constitute a direct threat to anyone specifically. Following the hearing, his trial has been scheduled for July 3rd.

There are also issues with outdated legislation. “He's been done with the Communications Act 2003, which was obviously invented before we had Facebook or Twitter or social networks or YouTube," says Padraig. "So it's odd that it would be picked up when countless things are said every day on the internet. It seems quite random that some get picked up and some don't.

“You don't even have to prove that someone is grossly offended, just that it could be grossly offensive. You're probably quite right, there's not someone going 'Oh, that's a breach of the Communications Act 2003.' But people do think, 'Something I don't like has happened and it must be stopped.'”

Without the police receiving complaints, it's unlikely that Ahmed's and Stacey's cases would have ever reached court. There are no Special Constables scouring Twitter for disagreeable comments that someone might find offensive. (Not yet, anyway.) Ultimately, the police made a decision to act based on the outrage. “If you look at the West Yorkshire Police feed on the day Ahmed's comments were made," said Padraig, "there were a lot of people tweeting at them: 'What are you going to do about this?'" Concerns about Ahmed's own safety might also have been a factor in them taking him off the streets, but, as Padraig said to me, there are “better ways of [addressing an individual's safety] than giving them a criminal record."

At the time of writing, there's a hate group with a few thousand "Likes" on Facebook dedicated to Ahmed. Some people have tried to look at his comments in light of the ten-year war fought on Afghan soil, while others have attempted to retroactively place them in the context of Robert Bales's alleged massacring of 16 innocent civilians in Kandahar three days later. Either way, the page is still called "Azhar Ahmed Scumbag!!!" and if anyone's reported the (often blatantly racist) abuse directed at the "scumbag" in question, the police haven't decided to act yet. I contacted the guy who runs the page but, perhaps wisely, so far he's keeping his own counsel.

On top of this inconsistency in enforcement, it turns out you can be arrested for something incredibly vague under the Public Order Act, and then charged with something far more specific. This is similar to what happened to accountant Paul Chambers in 2010, who made a joke on Twitter about blowing Doncaster airport "sky high" when heavy snowfall delayed his flight. They couldn't try him as a terrorist (because he wasn't one), so they charged him under the same act as Ahmed. Chambers was found guilty, ordered to pay £1,000 plus legal costs and lost his job as a consequence of the trial. His latest appeal is at the High Court, a decision is expected by Easter.

So what's illegal on social media and what isn't? Do Chambers, Ahmed, and Stacey's prosecutions mean that thousands of people are getting away with committing crimes on the internet right this very second? Isn't it dangerous that the law and its application are so vague?

“What will actually be a public order offence is often commuted into a Communications Act offence because the Crown Prosecution Service has more chance of a prosecution," says Padraig. "Whereas really, the Communications Act is for things like menacing emails or dodgy, threatening text messages, that sort of thing. I don't think people writing tweets or posting Facebook updates is the same as finding someone's email address and sending them a threatening email, it's just saying random things.”

What about if you share something offensive that somebody else authored? “Well, I put up a link to what Azhar Ahmed had said and nobody's coming after me!” I guess there's a context to retweeting or linking, much like there is in quoting offensive comments in this article.

Liam Stacey, outside Swansea Magistrates Court on Monday.

On Monday, Liam Stacey pleaded guilty to sending racially aggravated communications. His case is different in that he clearly sent messages directly to people. I asked Padraig what sentence he's likely to receive next week. “The racial element adds significantly to any charge. If it's the Public Order Act he could possibly face jail.” Stacey was also drunk while sending his messages (he was watching a rugby game in the pub when he heard about Muamba's collapse). However, being drunk is, “sadly not a defense. You don't even get diminished responsibility, unfortunately.”

I guess the lesson to learn here is that, if you do get pissed and tweet stupid things, you might find yourself up in front of a judge who has probably never seen your hilarious quips about Geordie Shore, and probably doesn't know that you consider yourself to be a bit of a joker. This is—as Padraig suggests—“quite scary,” especially when most people tweet reactions to newsworthy events pretty instinctively these days, particularly after a couple of tins.

However, Padraig added, directly threatening someone, which Stacey did do, is different from simply being offensive. You have no right to not be offended. However, you do have a right to not have people threaten to cave your face in everywhere you go, including online. “The offensive stuff – that, I think, people kind of have to live with. But the actual, straightforward threats—there was one I think that said something about 'stamping on his fucking face' or something—then I think a case can be made that someone should be reprimanded for that.”

The nagging worry with Stacey's case isn't whether what he said was offensive or violent, but whether it would have been handled differently by police had it been in reaction to someone less famous and in a not-so public space. “I don't think anyone would have noticed, to be completely honest. Hundreds of people complained to the police, apparently, including Stan Collymore and people like that. He was brought to book because there was this big popular outpouring of anger.”

Fabrice Muamba being carried from the pitch whilst unconscious at White Hart Lane on Saturday.

When Michael Jackson died, countless defamatory jokes about pedophilia, domestic abuse, and race were being shared across the web. There must have been some people complaining about that, so it seems odd that things are being picked up on now. Padraig suggested that the convictions handed out to those inciting violence on Facebook during the riots in Manchester last August may have set the precedent for what we are now seeing. Ultimately, though, how can you know if someone is serious? Does it even matter?

“The **woman in Croydon who was filmed—**off her head on something, clearly—ranting on the tram? You just think, seven years ago, before YouTube, if you had seen that on the bus, you would have gone home and said: 'There was a racist woman on the bus, it was really horrible,' or you'd have asked the driver to kick her off. Now, something must be done quickly, or at least must be seen to be done.

“Everyone can join in. You have Mia Farrow in New York saying: 'Isn't it terrible that this woman was racist on a tram in Croydon?' These phenomena become enormous, there's always this terrible person that must be stopped. Everything becomes heightened, we demand response, we demand reaction to these things that are terrible and happening right in front of us on the web. We must be satisfied that they are stopped.

“I think we have to learn to ignore people as we do in real life. In real life, you know when someone is a genuine threat, or if they're just being mouthy or a bit drunk and if they are, you just ignore them. But we don't draw that line sometimes on social media.

“We tend to think that, because the internet is in some way a controlled thing, we feel that we should control what happens on there all the time. We don't try to control the minutiae of what happens in real life social spaces. We have traffic lights and policemen, but we don't control conversations.”

However, obviously people act differently on social media to how they do in real life. When you hold court in the pub with friends, it is still essentially a private act. You can perform in the same way and fulfill the same need to share ideas or thoughts on social media, but to several hundred people and potentially the world.

Usually it's just shit jokes. Occasionally it's some dickhead being racist. Neither is anything newly introduced by the internet. However, social media provides a much wider potential audience for this sort of dinner party carry on.

Padraig is probably right when he says, “I think we need to think about it more like the pub than publishing. If you heard someone being annoyingly racist in the pub, you wouldn't run and find the police. You might leave the pub, or you might tell them to shut up. But you wouldn't immediately think to report them to the authorities. I think we should maybe learn to have those kind of expectations of the web, purely in terms of social media. The clue's in the word 'social.'”

Maybe there should be a bunch of new laws written to address the bigots of the internet. Or maybe we should all take a deep breath next time we see a status update we disagree with, or a clip of a cretin being a dick, then thank fuck that we'll probably never meet them, close the browser, and move on.

Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshuahaddow