Call for overhaul of laws over social media prosecutions

Instagram and Facebook on a smartphone

Instagram and Facebook on a smartphone

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More than 100 people a year across Lancashire are being charged or cautioned following complaints about offensive online messages, new figures have revealed.

The county’s police force has levelled charges or cautions at 539 people under the Communications Act and Malicious Communications Act since 2010, according to research by civil liberties lobby group Big Brother Watch.

That is the second highest figure in the country, behind only Avon and Somerset Police, and includes action taken following complaints about messages posted on social media sites like Facebook.

The figures come as several Blackpool FC fans were threatened with legal action over messages posted online about the club and its directors, Karl and Owen Oyston.

The Oystons have launched civil proceedings against some fans in recent weeks.

But Big Brother Watch has told of its concerns around the figures, claiming current laws were brought in before sites like Facebook were even invented and were too “loosely-worded”, meaning people risk being prosecuted for “stupidity rather than criminality”.

The group says the figures show the need for an overhaul of the legislation, amid increasing complaints over threats and insults made on social media.

Although Lancashire Police does not record how many of the cases involved the use of social media, Big Brother Watch has warned such cases are increasing.

Dan Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch, said: “It is of concern that outdated, loosely-worded and confusing legislation is being used on a regular basis to police our communications.

“This report has shown that there is very little standardisation between police forces in how often these powers are used and in how they are recorded.

“In the age of social media it is essential that action be taken to ensure that the legislation is up to date, proportionate and properly recorded. Until then more individuals, most of whom are guilty of stupidity rather than criminality, will find themselves unnecessarily dealing with the law.”

Between 2010 and 2013, Lancashire Police charged 419 under the two laws, cautioning a further 120. Use of the two laws spiked in 2012, when police dealt with 177 cases.

Lancashire Police declined to comment on the figures.