Saturday, 24 May 2014

This tweet is a Section 127 offence

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 is a notorious blot on the statute book, epitomised by the ultimately unsuccessful prosecution of Paul Chambers (the Twitter Joke Trial) under the first limb of the section.  That concerns messages of a grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing character sent by means of a public communications network.

The section is such a mess that the Director of Public Prosecutions had to devise a set of social media prosecution guidelines in attempt to avoid criminalising a substantial proportion of the population.

The less well known second limb of Section 127 is also extraordinarily broad.  It catches anyone who sends – again by means of a public communications network - a message that he knows to be false for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.

The second limb was originally designed in the 1930s to catch a particularly unpleasant type of hoaxer who would send telegrams to people informing them that a relative was seriously ill (see Hansard).  Now, like the first limb, it can catch tweets.  (Tweets qualify because they are sent across public telecommunications networks.)

Putting aside the potential for the second limb to catch all sorts of harmless pranks, we can have some fun with it.

Consider the tweet that forms the title of this post: “This tweet is a Section 127 offence.” Could that tweet fall (however theoretically) within the second limb of Section 127?

The first requirement is that the message be false.  If the tweet is not an offence under Section 127, its message is false.  But if it is false, then Section 127 can bite.  But if that means the tweet is an offence, then the message is true and the tweet cannot be an offence. (For self-referential paradoxes, see here)  

Is the tweet sent for the purpose of annoying another?  Hardly (and indeed ‘another’ may suggest something targeted at a particular person). However a substantial section of the population detests logical puzzles and paradoxes and may conceivably be annoyed to discover that they have been lured into such a maddening game by following the link to this post in the tweet.

Finally, S.127 requires that the sender knows the message to be false. The tweet’s assertion that it is an offence under Section 127 is both preposterous and, by virtue of that falsity, potentially caught by S.127; and so (putting annoyance on one side) in turn possibly true.  I’ll leave to the philosophers whether I know to be false a message that I believe to be false, yet which endlessly loops through truth and falsity. 

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Everyman and the data inspector

[Now dedicated to the memory of John Blundell, who died on 22 July 2014. Find out the connection here.]

Everyman is dreaming of a future.

Data Inspector: Good morning, citizen. We have reason to believe you have data in this house.

Everyman: Who told you that?

DI: Someone who knows.

Everyman: It would be a strange house that didn’t have data in it, wouldn’t it?

DI: All the same, we have to act on reports received.

Everyman: At dawn?

DI: You heard us. We require entry to inspect the data on these premises. We suspect it may be inaccurate, incomplete or irrelevant to the purposes for which it was collected or further processed.

Everyman: This is my private house. It’s my personal information.

DI: Your personal information? We’ve heard it names other people. That makes it their information.

Everyman: It’s still my private house.

DI: From which you run a little business on eBay.  No household exception for you.

Everyman: I don’t have to answer your questions.

DI: Ah, but you do.  How else can we perform our duty to the public?

Everyman: What about my privacy?

DI: Privacy begins at home. So that's where we start.

Everyman: By invading my privacy?

DI: We protect privacy, we don’t invade it.

Everyman: You seem to be about to invade my home.

DI: Sometimes you have to sacrifice privacy to preserve privacy.

Everyman: So what do you want to know?

DI: Who is the data controller in this house?

Everyman: How should I know that?

DI: You are required to know that. The data controller should have notified us.

Everyman: Well you’ve got me there, haven’t you?

DI: When did you last clean your data?

Everyman: Clean?

DI: Scrub it - remove excessive, irrelevant or out of date data. We like to see hygienic data practices, citizen.  Dirty data is a menace.

Everyman: Sounds like the last public health campaign.

DI: Exactly.  Unclean data spreads.  We could have a national data contamination crisis on our hands.  You know our motto: “Healthy data makes a healthy mind”.

Everyman: So you think I’ve got a secret store of mouldy old data hidden away here, do you? 

DI: I’m sure of it.  We have a duty to discharge and you’re starting to be obstructive.

Everyman: What else do you want?

DI: Do all your appliances conform to privacy design standards?

Everyman: And if they don’t?

DI: You’ll be put on our list.

Everyman: What list is that?

DI: The privacy offenders register. Everyone should know who can and can’t be trusted with their data.

Everyman: How long would I be on it?

DI: Permanently.

Everyman: No right to be forgotten, then?

DI: Not where privacy breaches are concerned, my friend. Far too serious.

Everyman: Well, thank you for your interest. Now please leave.

DI: Not that simple, citizen.  Sledgehammer, please.

Everyman: (wakes up).