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Social Media

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 6 January 2015

2. What steps he is taking to develop a greater level of public understanding of the legal framework applicable to social media. (906834)

Where appropriate, I publish online warnings about potential prejudicial reporting that had previously only been given to the mainstream media. We also send tweets warning social media users of the risks of being in contempt of court. I intend to look again at whether there is anything more that can be done to raise awareness in this area. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service publishes online its guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. These set out the approach that prosecutors should take when deciding whether to prosecute.

The inappropriate use of social media can cause immense harm to innocent people; there was a case just before Christmas of a young man who was driven to suicide by the actions of online bullies. What actions can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that people understand that their unlawful conduct online is subject to precisely the same sanctions as such conduct offline?

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend’s point. It is important for everyone to understand that if they engage in behaviour online and on social media that would be punished under criminal law in other circumstances, it will be punished under criminal law. As I said, the CPS is making an effort to publish its guidelines on a number of matters. This is one of them and there was a public consultation prior to it. We all need to play our part to ensure that people understand the law in this area.

Does the Attorney-General share my concern about the increase in Islamophobia and racism on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and the inability of site owners to take the postings down? Will he have a meeting with the companies concerned to urge them to take down these postings, rather than face prosecution?

I do share that concern, and I am very happy to meet social media providers and others to discuss what more we can do. As the right hon. Gentleman says—I am sure the House generally agrees—it is important that everyone understands that social media is not a space where one can act with impunity. Social media providers, and all those who use social media, need to understand clearly that criminal law applies.

What steps can be taken to ensure that the judiciary, as well as members of the public, understand that at the commencement of trials it is absolutely imperative that no proceedings are communicated via social media, particularly in relation to very high profile legal proceedings?

The hon. Gentleman is right. In all cases, the judiciary need to give clear directions that social media is to be used cautiously and, for jurors, not to be used at all. It is important for jurors to understand that, which is why we have put in statute offences that jurors may commit if they use social media to communicate what they are doing, or in other ways behave inappropriately and not in accordance with their oath. We will always look at ways to explain that more clearly to all who are involved in court proceedings.