When the Metropolitan Police put out a statement last week suggesting that merely viewing (absent publication, incitement etc) the video of the beheading of James Foley, they were rightly challenged on the basis for this (conclusion, there wasn’t a valid one).
But what about a company which actively, by the coding of its software, communicates stills from the video to unwilling recipients? That seems to be the potential (and actual, in the case of James Ball in the tweet quoted above) effect of recent changes Twitter has made to its user experience. Tweets are now posted to users’ timelines which are not from people followed, nor from followers of people followed
when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting
I’m not clear on the algorithm that is used to select which unsolicited tweets are posted to a timeline, but the automated nature of it raises issues, I would argue, about Twitter’s responsibility and potential legal liability for the tweets’ appearance, particularly if the tweets are offensive to the recipient.
Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 says
A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a)sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
(b)causes any such message or matter to be so sent.
The infamous case of DPP v Chambers dealt with this provision, and although Paul Chambers was, thankfully, successful in appealing his ridiculous conviction for sending a menacing message, the High Court accepted that a tweet is a message sent by means of a public electronic communications network for the purposes of the Communications Act 2003 (¶25).
A still of the beheading video certainly has the potential to be grossly offensive, and also obscene. The original tweeter might possibly be risking the committing of a criminal offence in originally tweeting it, but what of Twitter, inserting into an unwilling recipient’s timeline?
Similarly, section 2 of the Terrorism Act 2006 creates an offence if a person is reckless at whether the distribution or circulation of a terrorist publication constitutes a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism (it’s possible this is the offence the Met were -oddly – hinting at in their statement).
I’m not a criminal lawyer (I’m not even a lawyer) so I don’t know whether the elements of the offence are made out, nor whether there are jurisdictional or other considerations in play, but it does strike me that the changes Twitter has made have the potential to produce grossly offensive results.