United Kingdom Makes Sincere Attempt To Kick Assholes Off Internet

It's really not my intent to make this bash-the-UK week.

In my defense, they seem to be trolling me.

Dateline: Lancashire. A 19-year-old oaf named Michael Woods writes nasty and stupid things on the internet about the abduction and murder of five-year-old April Jones. For this — for the crime of sending a "message or other matter that is grossly offensive by means of a public electronic communications network" — he was arrested "for his own safety" and, after a guilty plea, sentenced to three months in jail by outraged authorites. What did he say?

Matthew Woods, 19, from Chorley, Lancashire, made derogatory posts about April and missing Madeleine McCann after getting the idea from Sickipedia, a website that "trades in sick jokes".

Among his comments was: "I woke up this morning in the back of a transit van with two beautiful little girls, I found April in a hopeless place."

Another read: "Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?"

Others stated: "I love April Jones" and "Could have just started the greatest Facebook argument ever. April Fools, Who Wants Maddie?"

He also wrote comments of a sexually explicit nature about April, who went missing last week from near her home in Machynlleth, mid-Wales.

Thanks to typically poor reporting of legal matters, it's difficult to suss out whether Woods posted these things as Facebook status updates, or whether he posted them to someone else's wall, or as a comment on a story about April Jones. The press coverage is sufficient to show, however, that the United Kingdom has successful trained its citizens to believe that offensive speech is a criminal justice matter:

Chorley magistrates heard members of the public were so upset about his posts they reported them to the police.

Woods is a dick, to be sure, but a mundane one. Much worse trolls — the sort who specifically target victims' families and memorial pages — are common, and places like YouTube are full of folks fond of saying things just as stupid and offensive to get attention.

Is the United Kingdom going to spend its time and money (not to mention its common-law heritage) going after all of them?

The answer appears to be that the UK will continue to arrest and prosecute online asshats who offend a sufficient number of people, or who offend people in connection with a sufficiently popular public figure. Being a racist dick about a popular footballer on Twitter will get you two months in jail. Tash-talk and hyperbole on Twitter about an Olympic contender will get you arrested. Trash-talk both a rival football club and Catholics on Facebook? That's eight months in jail. Racist twitter messages to a different footballer? That's arrest, conviction, and community service. Make a bad joke about blowing up an airport – a joke nobody takes seriously? That's a two year legal ordeal for you, mate.

What's the difference between someone who gets prosecuted, and someone who doesn't? Well, it seems pretty clear that being a dick to a popular athlete is unusually risky. But the difference may only exist in the minds of the U.K.'s criminal justice system, and struggling to figure it out themselves. The potential for preferential treatment and abuse is manifest.

I could look at each case and argue, in detail, why the prosecution of the lout in question was a violation of basic free speech principles. But the most alarming thing about this trend is not any individual case, but the government's goals and the public sentiment supporting them. Free people don't claim a right to be free of offense, and don't expect the criminal justice system to protect them from mean words, as opposed to true threats. Limited and principled governments don't cultivate amongst the populace a desire to see rude speech punished with jail.

So: the point is not that the United Kingdom's Canute-like ambition to sweep asshattery from the internet is ridiculous. The point is that it encourages the populace to be subservient to government, and encourages the government to take advantage of that subservience.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    Dude, it is so much worse than only those examples you've given, but that's an excellent starter if you limit it only to on-line stuff. I swear, we in the UK are doomed. On the other hand, America has the TSA. So…

  2. Jess says

    TSA = Taint Snorting Association.

    @Jay – On 1 February 2010, the UK Government's Department for Transport issued a directive making it mandatory for any passenger selected for a body scan to participate with no opt out available. I've no idea if this is just for Manchester airport or all UK airports.

    In the United States, the Transport Security Administration (TSA) which regulates aviation security at American airports, does allow a choice between body scanning and conventional "pat down" security searches. Granted it's not much of a choice but at least we have one.


  3. Twitter nomdeplume7 says

    I'm offended by non-Christian thoughts and ideas, and a great number of people are with me on this. Let's do this, people!

  4. says

    @Jess: Not to split hairs, but I know from personal experience when I flew to the US a few months back that passengers can opt out from the scanners, and at most airports and terminals they hardly use the scanners anyway. Passengers can also leave their shoes on, once again.

    Furthermore, the pat downs aren't anywhere near as invasive as the TSA's — no crotch-grabbing or breast-fondling here. If they have reason to think you're hiding something, you get taken to a private room for the pat down. You are not embarrassed in front of hundreds of passengers. I'm not saying the UKBF is all that, because it isn't. In fact, it's dreadful in its own way for entirely different reasons, but they remain polite and courteous 99.9% of the time, and don't overtly treat everyone as potential criminals.

  5. perlhaqr says

    TSA never seems to find it as amusing as I do when I opt "for the handjob, rather than the microwaving".

  6. SassQueen says

    @ Jay/Jess – it is my understanding that the EU has done away with body scanners altogether? (Google says yes, they have)

  7. Ancel De Lambert says

    "I woke up this morning in the back of a transit van with two beautiful little girls, I found April in a hopeless place."
    Is that a joke? I can't tell what's the joke.

    "Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?"
    Better, uses discriminatory nonsense, but at least a decent attempt at humor.

    "Could have just started the greatest Facebook argument ever. April Fools, Who Wants Maddie?"
    Okay, we're getting to some actual jokes here, he's moved on to punning. Keep it up kid, you'll get to legitimate humor eventually.

  8. says

    The court-sanctioned mob rule that these cases establish is particularly discordant coming from Great Britain. As an American who gets easily fed up with his countrymen's tendency towards euphemistic, disingenuous and manipulative language, I find it refreshing to talk to Britons, particularly Englishmen, to read British writers, and to watch Prime Minister's Questions. Their candor and, yes, often their rudeness work wonders to purge the passive-aggressive bullshit that bombards Americans from all sides. Even listening to Britons fight over the phone-tapping scandal was cathartic. By comparison, the way American politicians deal with such scandals (not to mention pseudoscandals like the Clinton/Lewinsky affair) is unctuous, pompous, sanctimonious and generally repulsive and insulting to the intelligence. I'm dead serious when I say that I'd rather be lied to by officials who aren't such fucking weasels. Prime Minister's Questions would make legions of our elected officials blanch and retreat into their holes, where they belong.

    The development of British hate crimes law is another matter entirely. The UK courts are allowing angry local pluralities (if even that) to use the police and the courts as proxy vigilantes, and they're allowing butthurt officials to commit official oppression against critics in the same fashion. Obviously Parliament has fucked up, too, by passing draconian laws that are ripe for abuse.

    This is a regression towards the capricious sorts of autocracy, satrapy and mob rule that predominate in the Middle East, which suggests a growing servility on the part of the British public. I'll be heartened if I start hearing of MPs being turfed out over this bullshit, because that's exactly what a vigilant electorate does when its representatives undermine the rule of law in that fashion. Not that our electorates stateside are particularly vigilant; it's past time for legislative heads to roll over the Dharun Ravi case, for one; but still, one would hope that the British, of all people, wouldn't degenerate from citizens into supplicants at the feet of capricious officials. As Ken has alluded to, Great Britain is the mother country for us Americans and for the Commonwealth. It's scary to see the source code for the common law, as it were, being corrupted by parties who want their personal offense at rude language redressed by the courts.

    In "Common Sense," Thomas Paine suggested that the reason that Great Britain suffered less official oppression than Turkey was that the British people were more jealous of their freedoms than the Turks. I certainly hope so.

  9. James Pollock says

    "Yes, he is a swine.
    But being a swine should not be criminal."

    Actually, it generally leads to the death penalty.
    MMMMM. Bacon.

  10. says

    @James: indeed. This weekend I indulged in bacon-wrapped dates on one night and bacon-wrapped shrimp the next.

    I should emphasize these were dates from a tree. I am a married man.

  11. Grifter says

    While I am saddened that my transition from omnivore to herbivore has rendered bacon unavailable, I am happy that this exists, even if I'm also forced to be limited to the gluten-free variety.

  12. says

    Watching this epidemic of misdemeanor butthurt consume jolly old England, I'm inclined to reclassify Transport for London's 2007 spat with its announcer as a step on the road to servility.

    In a sense, it was a classic employer-employee dispute, like the blowup last year over Gilbert Gottfried's tasteless tsunami jokes. I found Gottfried's jokes hilarious and at times brilliant, but he was obviously playing with fire by writing such things as an employee of a private insurer whose policyholders had sustained tsunami damage. Aflac insisted on gravitas in a time of disaster, while Gottfried couldn't resist mining it for dark humor. These were both reasonable reactions, but things were so raw in Japan that the divergent reactions were completely incompatible and the relationship had to end.

    Where Japan suffered through the untimely deaths of nearly 20,000 and the destruction of a wide swath of its east coast, TfL suffered through years of aspersions from its riders for providing expensive, unreliable tube service. So when its announcer, Emma Clarke, told an interviewer that she avoided the "dreadful" tube whenever possible, it fired her. Some observers thought that she had undermined her own case by also producing a series of self-deprecating parody announcements. Clarke claimed afterwards that what she found so "dreadful" was hearing her own voice all the time, which anyone who isn't a total narcissist should be able to understand. It has to be a weird experience. But even if that was a dodge, Clarke would have been far from the only Londoner to be unhappy with the tube.

    In any event, a public transport agency fired an employee for making what it perceived as a comment critical of its subway service. Instead of providing good service at a reasonable price point, which would shut up all but the professional cranks, TfL retaliated against an employee for making a public complaint that was completely in line with what countless other Londoners were surely saying in private. The intent was clearly censorious.

  13. JK says

    If this is the route that government is taking, why is Frankie Boyle, for example, still a free man?

    He (other comedians are available) has made numerous jokes about Madeleine McCann and caused controversy on many occasions, most likely adding up to a life sentence under these regulatory nutcases.

    Regarding one such Boyle joke:

    'A Scottish Tory spokesman said yesterday: “Most right-thinking people will be appalled by these remarks."'

    The man sentencing Woods today: "The words and references used to the current case in Wales and that of the missing girl in Portugal are nothing less than shocking, so much so that no right thinking person in society should have communicated to them such fear and distress."

    Pretty similar reasoning for the supposed uproar.

    I myself have a policy of at least one laugh a day, Sickipedia often generates a lot of these. I find Frankie Boyle controversial but his jokes match my sense of humour. If jokes that get people jailed make me laugh and also inspire me to write some of my own, what am I, a member of the British public who does not want to be made an example of, supposed to do? Change my sense of humour to fit that of the Governments standard? I can't see that happening any time soon.

    It's times like these that every time I hear my country's name, I just sigh.

  14. AlphaCentauri says

    Black humor is a perfectly normal way for people to deal with things that frighten and disturb them. If they can confine it to sickipedia without the families of the missing girls having to be confronted with it if they don't want to go looking for it, that's actually a pretty good way to handle it.

    I wonder if the legislators making those laws have any idea of what kind of humor goes on in the physician's lounge of their favorite hospital?

  15. says

    @Henry: Wow. So, apparently, "legitimate political opinions" are those no one finds offensive.

    And… someone read something upsetting on the Internet, in a public forum, and called the police? Mind boggling.

  16. says

    It appears that someone's noticed that this is ridiculous; the director of public prosecutions is involved and wants to take action to protect free speech and the "right to be offensive". It sounds good on the surface, but I don't think whatever comes of this consultation is going to go far enough.

  17. Alison says

    s.127 Communications Act 2003 was drafted and enacted long before social media came into existence. So the CPS / the courts are faced with legislation pre social media (which it has to follow because parliament is supreme).

    This will explain the gist of lawyers' thinking over here: http://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2012/10/09/twelve-weeks-in-prison-for-sick-jokes-really/

    The other thing worth mentioning, a lot of what is in the Communications Act is a result of Directive 2002/20/EC. i.e. the UK was legally obliged to implement, otherwise the doctrine of doctrine of vertical direct effect would have come into play.

  18. Alison says

    I'm not sure how additional words crept into that sentence. However, I meant to say, "… otherwise the doctrine of vertical direct effect would have come into play."

  19. Furor Teutonicus says

    Strange. I thought it was supossed to be SOOO difficult for the police to obtain information regarding real addresses from I.P numbers, internet providers and places like Facefuk, that they "need" however many new powers to deal with "internet crime.".

    The "lack" of these "new powers" did not seem to hinder them in the Facefuk/Twitter cases, did it?

  20. AWM says

    With this I can agree, a frightening development and completely arbitrary.

    This is as good example as anyone should need that 'progressives' are no friend of individual liberties. Ten years plus of 'Nu labour' was a disaster for civil rights in the UK.