Helping MI6 with their inquiries
At least six people have been arrested in England for tweets about the recent terrorist killing of a British soldier, and they’re only the latest tweeters to be punished because some tweets, in England, are against the law. In 2012, 653 Brits faced criminal charges because they crossed the line in one way or another while using social media.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Espionage, obscenity, and fighting words are not protected, along with certain kinds of commercial speech. You can’t conspire with the enemy, shout fire in a crowded theater, lie about a product you are selling, or broadcast obscenity or profanity over the airwaves during hours when children might be in the audience. Other than that, anyone can say just about anything online or off, and the law will look the other way.
But England has no free-speech guarantees. The English Communications Act makes it illegal for the 6.6 million active tweeters in the U.K, to tweet anything grossly offensive, obscene, or menacing. But it’s also against British law to send any electronic communication “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.” In England, it is illegal to send an inconvenient tweet.
Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003 makes it illegal to send an inconvenient tweet.
I appreciate America’s free-speech protections, and as a writer, an academic, and a citizen, I benefit from them, celebrate them, and fight for them. But I’m seriously tempted to move to England, where the law protects me from the increasing number of annoying, inconvenient, and anxiety-producing emails, updates, and tweets that fill my screen each day. It’s like being able to tell those kids to get off my lawn, and expect the cops to back me up.
Imagine living in a country where I can call 9-9-9—the British equivalent of our 9-1-1—every time I’m annoyed by
- A “promoted tweet” advertising something I have no interest in, or even something I might want to buy. If I want something, I’m perfectly able to google it on my own, and I have no interest in seeing ads for things I didn’t know I needed. Most of the “promoted tweets” I get concern products or services whose functions will ever remain a mystery to me. Life is just too short to have to scroll past them.
- A “suggested post” on Facebook that’s similar to a promoted tweet but is even more annoying because it fills so much more of my screen.
- An email that escaped my junk filter informing me that my password has expired, I have come into a fortune, and my partner is unsatisfied—all of which seem likely to promote anxiety.
- A request to “like” or retweet some inane bit of saccharine sentiment or risk the bad luck certain to befall anyone foolish enough to break the chain.
- An ad that takes over my screen, blares unpleasant audio, and obscures the article I was reading, just because my finger strayed the least bit as I scrolled my touch screen.
- A request from the some distant website to see my location—I live in central Illinois, so even though I found my way to your site, it’s not likely that I could take advantage of your local advertisers, even if I had a mind to.
- A tweet that asks for my professional opinion, for free.
- A tweet that rejects my professional opinion, because after all, what do experts know?
Yes, the English have much better beer, but the British Communications Act doesn’t define what it means by “causing annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety,” so it’s likely that if I did relocate, anything I might post from my British account would subject me to the kind of official scrutiny that would to produce what First Amendment fans like me call a “chilling effect” on speech. If you find this post annoying, inconvenient, or anxious-making, well I'm in America, so that’s just too bad. But if I were posting it from England or Wales, I expect I’d be hearing from your solicitor. That would be annoying. It would be inconvenient. And it would fill me with anxiety, leading me to call my solicitor.
Worse yet, what if my tweets made the government anxious? Or the government found them annoying, or simply inconvenient? Britain may well be a liberal democracy, not an autocratic state like China, where the internet police go after dissidents, critics, even average citizens, disabling their accounts and throwing them in jail, but the way the Communications Act is written, even in England my 140-character post could bring a knock at the door in the middle of the night.
My inconvenent tweets could well be the reason I've been getting "suggested posts" inviting me to visit Scotland Yard, sit in the dock at the Old Bailey, or tour the Tower of London. I guess, one way or another, the next time I come to England, I'll be seeing you in court.
"Helping the authorities with their inquiries" at MI 6 from the "Spy Room" across the Thames at the Morpeth Arms.