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Internet (Legal Framework)

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2013

3. What assessment he has made of the level of public understanding of the legal framework applicable to the internet. (163820)

Since taking office, I have brought a number of successful proceedings involving contempts committed online. The Crown Prosecution Service has also prosecuted numerous offenders who have used the internet to commit criminal offences, and recently issued new guidelines to prosecutors on the handling of cases involving social media. Many of those cases have been widely reported in both national and local media, and I trust that they have increased public awareness of the fact that misconduct online has consequences.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that public awareness has been increased by, for example, the successful prosecution of jury members who do not keep to the rules and who research the details of a case during the course of a trial using the internet?

I trust that it has. If we wish to preserve trial by jury, it is extremely important that judges’ directions to juries not to conduct research are properly observed. If they are not, trial by jury will not survive. I have brought a number of cases against jury members; they have been reported, and I hope that as a result of my bringing them, I shall have to bring far fewer in future.

When the footballer Ched Evans was convicted of rape last year, his victim was named more than 6,000 times on Twitter. She has been forced to accept a new identity and relocation package. I understand that only a handful of people have ever been held to account for naming her, and that they have merely been ordered to pay compensation. Should we not send a much stronger signal to people who indulge in such behaviour?

The hon. Lady has raised two separate points The first relates to the way in which the CPS has gone about prosecuting these cases. It has obviously been selective. Cases have to be brought to its attention, and it seeks to deal with those cases, particularly cases involving those who have initiated such comments. I think that that must be the right way of going about things. As for the hon. Lady’s point about penalties, she must understand that they are not a matter for the CPS. If Parliament wishes to make the penalties more severe, that is a matter for legitimate debate in the House of Commons.

The Attorney-General referred to the new guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions on social media. They are very welcome, but does he agree that in some cases the law is not clear, and is being brought into disrepute? I am thinking of, for example, the Twitter joke trial under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

The principle of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 places a higher threshold on prosecution than an ordinary abusive comment, but it must be shown that, in the circumstances, the comment was grossly offensive. I hope that the guidelines issued by the CPS—I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his appreciation of what they have done—will provide a framework that shows clearly what is and what is not acceptable, but there are bound to be areas that present some difficulty. The basic rule must be that the fact that someone is operating on social media does not give that person immunity from the criminal law.

As one who, some time ago, was the subject of a specific death threat on a social media site—which, thankfully, resulted in a successful prosecution—may I ask the Attorney-General to reassure the public that people’s perception of their own anonymity on a keyboard will be dispelled, and that those who break the law on line will be rigorously pursued?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that some individuals have come in for a rude surprise when they have been prosecuted despite having believed that they enjoyed anonymity. While of course there may be circumstances in which prosecutions cannot be brought—there can clearly be no prosecution when material is placed on the internet from abroad—I am generally satisfied, on the basis of what I have observed, that both the police and the CPS have responded proactively. They take offences of this kind seriously, and are keen to convey the message that this is not an area in which people can behave with impunity.

What discussions has the Attorney-General had with the Department for Education about ensuring that young people fully understand the legal framework of the internet, and, more important, know how to keep themselves safe on the internet?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting and important point. We have had no formal discussions about that, but I know it has been discussed informally because I have done so myself. She might wish to ask the Secretary of State for Education that question, as the way in which young people can be brought up to understand their rights and responsibilities is an important part of the new curriculum.