Social media crackdowns have become the hallmark of authoritarian governments from China to Syria. But the arrests last week became the latest in a string of such cases in Britain, underscoring how even some of the world’s greatest democracies are struggling with the rising power of social media.
Last year in England and Wales, 653 people faced criminal charges related to their activity on social media, up from 46 such arrests in 2008, according to figures released to the media under a freedom-of-information request. And after the killing of the soldier last month on a busy southeast London street, some in Britain’s Conservative-led government are pushing for even broader powers to police electronic communication in an effort to root out homegrown terrorism.
As authorities intervene in more and more social media cases, however, the debate is escalating over the right to free speech in a world where anyone with a mobile device or a computer can find a public pulpit.
“There is no broad First Amendment protection in Britain on the right to free speech, and we’re still figuring out how to address public expression through social media,” said Padraig Reidy, an expert at the Index on Censorship, a London-based free speech group. “The worrying question is whether, as we try to keep up with social media, is there a tendency by the government and the police to try to limit what some people say?”
‘A very dangerous thing’
Arrests linked to social media are not unheard of in the United States, where a New Jersey high school student was brought up on charges in January for allegedly “trash-tweeting” a threat to blow up a rival high school’s gym. But experts say the legal response to social media has been stronger in Britain, a nation where critics say a tendency to jealously guard personal privacy and put public safety first has occasionally trumped the right to free speech.
Britain has seen not only a surge in criminal prosecutions but also a growing number of civil suits. Last week, for instance, the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons became the latest causality of the Great British Twitter Wars that has seen a number of social media users fined for slander.
Sally Bercow, 43, has spent years prolifically tweeting the inside scoop about life “under Big Ben,” racking up more followers than the subscriber base of some British newspapers. But in a decision seen as a warning to social media users nationwide, a high court ruled she had libeled Lord Alistair McAlpine by suggesting in a recent tweet that the Conservative politician was an unnamed pedophile in what turned out to be a spurious exposéby the BBC.