Twitter crimes: Is it time for a social media Bill of Rights?

Two cases in the news have been prompting questions about the way in which we interact with social media, and how it affects everyday life.

In the UK, a teenager has been issued with a harassment order after he made a decidedly offensive tweet to British diver Tom Daley when he and his diving partner failed to win a medal. This has prompted a serious discussion about proportionality and a trigger-happy police bent on stomping out abuse in social media. This case can be read in context with the happy conclusion of the so-called Twitter Joke Trial, in which Paul Chambers won an appeal to the High Court against his conviction for tweeting a joke about bombing the Robin Hood airport.

However, the troll involved in the Tom Daley case is more complex than it may appear. Apparently, the troll in question, one Rileyy_69, is a troubled individual with a history of Twitter abuse, as this post explains. If you have a strong heart, you can read his timeline (or read it here if it’s been deleted when you read this). Be warned again, the tweets are sometimes quite graphic, showing extreme hatred. Whatever we may think of Riley’s actions, it seems clear that police intervention seems excessive.

Now contrast that story with another incident based on the misuse of social media. Karina Bolaños, the Costa Rican (now former) Vice Minister for Culture and Youth has been fired after an intimate video of her posing for the camera in her underwear was made public through YouTube. The political storm following the distribution of the video has sparked questions about whether a public official should be fired for something that is completely a private affair in no way related to her functions, but I think that it also opens questions about social media that are still unanswered. Can anyone stop any sort of intimate video or photographs from being published online? Could you accuse the person who made the video public? Is there some way to defend the private life in a wired world where every indiscretion is one click away from becoming public knowledge?

In the case of Ms Bolaños, the cat is out of the bag (I am showing restraint not to make inappropriate yet funny comments here people, I hope you appreciate it). It would be impossible to expect in this day and age to stop re-publication of online material. However it is possible for her to sue the publisher for copyright infringement, as her intimate video and her performance are protected by copyright and related rights (phew, made it out of that paragraph unscathed, well done me). However, is it time for the law to protect people in a much stronger manner? Think back of the story of a British student who took intimate pictures of herself for her boyfriend, had her phone stolen and the files were published as a torrent. In that case a judge tried to remove the files (failing to understand the Streisand effect), but perhaps the right of redress should be against the person who made the files available in the first place.

All of the above lead me to believe that perhaps we should collectively revisit our digital rights and obligations as we cannot expect to treat the wired environment in the same manner in which we treat real space. This is obvious, it is an observation as old as the Internet itself, but it is as true today as it was back in 1995. Yet, regulators and law enforcement continue forgetting it. We cannot rely on privacy rules that applied to an era in which it was difficult to publish anything, today everyone with a mobile phone is a publisher. We cannot expect to police speech in public spaces that carry the messages of idiots to the four corners of the globe (errr… circles do not have corners, but you know what I mean). Idiots have always existed, but they did not have the ability to bother anyone more than those unfortunate to hear their stupid musings. Today idiots have gone global, so we need to come to terms with that fact and decide to either raise the bar on what constitutes criminal idiocy, or suffer in an environment where the police is tasked with examining our thoughts.

We need to examine social media behaviour to try to come to terms with technologies that affect our daily lives. Here is a list of principles that I think we should expect in the social media world:

  • You should always retain full control of your private information.
  • Freedom of speech.
  • Access to the Internet is a fundamental right.
  • Transparency should prevail.
  • Account closure should always be the exception.
  • The crowd is not always right, tolerate minority opinions even if you strongly disagree with them.
  • Respect is earned.
  • Sharing is good and desirable, but recongise other’s right not to share.
  • In short, be excellent to one another.

Any more principles?

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