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Facebook, Twitter Threats Are Crimes, U.K. Prosecutors Say

Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Facebook and Twitter users who threaten violence online will face criminal charges in Britain, while people posting “grossly offensive” comments may avoid punishment by hitting the delete button, prosecutors said.

Threats, harassment and stalking on sites run by Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. will be prosecuted “robustly” under new social-media guidelines, while non-threatening messages that are obscene or false may trigger charges if they “cross a high threshold,” the Crown Prosecution Service said today.

The guidelines, which are temporary until they receive final approval, “are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law,” Keir Starmer, the agency’s director of public prosecutions, said in an e-mailed statement.

The new rules come five months after a London court overturned the conviction of a man who posted a joke on Twitter in 2010, saying he would blow a British airport “sky high” because he was angry about a closure. The CPS prosecuted the man, Paul Chambers, even though police and staff at Robin Hood airport in Doncaster, England, decided the tweet wasn’t serious.

The CPS is “demonstrating that the Internet is not the ungovernable Wild West that some consider it,” while still “allowing people to vent angry or misguided musings” without fear of being charged, said Amber Melville-Brown, a media lawyer at Withers LLP in London.

‘Very Sensible’

While the guidelines don’t change any U.K. laws, they are intended to assist police in deciding how to handle complaints about online communications and help prosecutors determine whether charges should be filed in specific cases. Facebook and Twitter were both involved in discussions on the rules and the public can comment until March 13, the CPS said.

“The interim guidelines set out some very sensible tests for when prosecutions would be appropriate,” Richard Allan, the policy director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, said in a statement.

Rachel Bremer, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Twitter, declined to comment on the CPS proposals.

Under the new rules, users who post offensive non-violent messages may avoid prosecution if the communications in question are deleted quickly and weren’t intended for a wide audience. Such cases may not be in the public interest, the CPS said.

“The interim guidelines thus protect the individual from threats or targeted harassment while protecting the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humor, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it,” Starmer said.

Javed Khan, who leads the Victim Support group, said the clarification on how different postings will be treated is “sorely needed.”

“Victims tell us that sustained and vindictive targeting on social media can leave long lasting emotional and psychological scars, so we warmly welcome clarification on how prosecutors will deal with online threats or harassment,” Khan said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Larson in London at elarson4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at aaarons@bloomberg.net

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