Public Communications Networks and Menacing Messages

This morning Paul Chambers won his #TwitterJokeTrial appeal and was acquitted of sending a menacing tweet under the communications act 2003. Paul had been found guilty of sending by a public electronic communication network a message of a “menacing character” contrary to s.127(1)(a) and (3) of the Communications Act 2003. The tweet in question read as follows:

“Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

For those who haven’t been following the case, Paul’s solicitor, David Allen Green, has written the background for New Statesman.

The High Court overturned the conviction on the basis that the tweet was not menacing, however the judge found that twitter IS a public communications network and is therefore subject to the communications act 2003. While I celebrate the decision of the court I disagree in part with their reasoning.

A key part of the original defence was that Twitter was not a public communications network, because a tweet read outside of the context of being a follower of the tweeter is content rather than a message.  I think this point was perhaps misunderstood by all sides. I would not argue that Twitter is not a public communications network, but that Twitter is both a public communications network and something more. Tweets that are not aimed at any one individual are a different usage which requires different treatment to that specified in the Communications Act 2003 and the original 1935 act that it was based on.

Paragraph 25 of the judgement says:

25. In our judgment, whether one reads the “tweet” at a time when it was read as “content” rather than “message”, at the time when it was posted it was indeed “a message” sent by an electronic communications service for the purposes of s.127(1). Accordingly “Twitter” falls within its ambit.

A tweet addressed to to one or more people with an @ mention is a message to those people. However, a tweet which is not addressed to anyone can be expected to be read by some or all followers of the person who makes the tweet. In general it would not be seen by those outside of this group unless either the tweet is “retweeted” – copied to the followers of one of the readers – or someone has searched through twitter for key words like “Robin Hood Airport” as happened in this case. The outsider had to make an effort to find it through search or by looking at the person’s profile. This is more like speaking in a group in a pub – what you say is meant for the group but others could stand nearby and listen too.

I believe that it is important that the difference in context between these types of tweets should be understood by the legal system. People frequently make jokey threats and statements, but there is a vast difference between making such a comment in the context of a group, and in aiming said comment as a message at the person or organisation who is the subject of those threats. Had Paul Chambers tweeted his statement directly to Robin Hood Airport then it would clearly have been a threat, but he did not do that. Instead he tweeted it to his followers who presumably would laugh or commiserate or both.

As to why it is important that people can joke around with ideas like bomb threats and suchlike, these tweets from Edwina Currie are a good demonstration. If Paul Chambers’ conviction had been upheld then Currie would be guilty of the same offence.

For now the important thing to note from the case is that as of this ruling, anything that you type on social networks will be subject to the Communications Act 2003 and anything considered menacing could be a criminal offence.

Further Reading

The appeal judgement in full [PDF]

Twitter joke trial: Paul Chambers wins high court challenge to conviction [Guardian]

Edwina Currie’s Comedy Connections [Storify]

Government plans to read your emails, IMs, txts, web browsing – not a joke

A lot of people were surprised to see a story from the BBC and from ITV claiming that the government plan to monitor and store details of electronic communications of everyone in the UK, including emails, web pages browsed, text messages and telephone calls. Many have decided that it cannot be true, especially as it appeared on the 1st of April.

Sadly, it is true and it is not a new idea. The plan was written about in The Telegraph last month but the plans are much older than that. The last Labour government, lover of all things authoritarian, came up with the Interception Modernisation Programme which in its original form would have had details of all electronic communications sent to a central government database. When the government eventually realised that this would be completely impractical they shifted the work to the service providers, who would all have to keep the details of the communications travelling through their networks and give the government access to their database at all times. The service providers realised just how much this would cost and so the government committed £2 billion to cover those costs over ten years. The plan was heavily criticised by the Conservatives, who published a paper titled Reversing the rise of the surveillance state. (Which is still on their website.) It was also criticised back then by the London School of Economics.  The plan was shelved in 2009 after opposition from communications service providers and a realisation that it would not be popular with the public.

After the election, though, the Conservatives decided to resurrect the plan, giving it a new name, the Communications Capabilities Development Programme. (CCDP) Questions were raised in 2010 by the Information Commissioner’s Office and it was mentioned in The New Statesman.  Now the government are pushing ahead with the CCDP and the queen’s speech will say that they intend to introduce legislation to implement the programme as soon as possible.

There are many things wrong with this programme of spying. It is impractical, expensive, a huge violation of our privacy, it places too much power in the hands of government, a government who we cannot trust. Making the full details of who talks to who available will allow security personnel to trawl through our data on fishing trips instead of requiring some basis for suspicion. Combined with the database for Universal Credit, which will be almost as comprehensive as the National Identity Register that was criticised so much by the Conservatives, and the centralisation of medical records, this provides private information about us all to the government on an unprecedented scale with huge scope for abuse and for life-destroying mistakes.

If these plans scare you, please write to your MP to tell them your objection to the Communications Capabilities Development Programme. You can use to send it if you don’t have their details. Please sign the Open Rights Group’s petition against government snooping and maybe consider joining the group too.

You should also look at ways of concealing your communications. This works best when you hide everything, innocent or not so that nothing is suspicious. I have written in the past about TOR from the point of view of helping other countries, but it is worth a read giving consideration to using it to protect your own privacy. The more technical might consider reading my thoughts on the concept of a paranoid computer.

Related stories

Here are news stories from before the 1st of April, for those who refuse to believe it.

Privacy Injunctions and holding the press to account

Believe it or not, I believe in personal privacy. I have more or less sacrificed mine by choice through my writing on this blog and through my use of twitter but for most of my life I tried very hard to keep most things about me private; certainly away from the internet. I explained in my blog post “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it” why I think that we are voluntarily giving up much of our right to keep our lives private but I still believe that we must have the option of privacy if we want it.

I also have much contempt for tabloid newspapers and celebrity gossip magazines that do all they can to expose the private lives of the rich and famous and the not-so-famous if they happen to have appeared in public life for a few minutes. While many desperate wannabe celebs may give their information out to be published voluntarily, many more do not and yet still find their image plastered all over the media and people everywhere discussing the intimate details of their sex lives or of their family. I find it particularly vile when tabloids discuss the private lives of ordinary people with the intention of destroying them or simply of making a titilating story. These stories often expose and condemn actions of ordinary civil servants, teachers and other underpaid hard-working people, destroying their lives just to create a tiny bit of outrage for their readers. (And that not even deserved – why shouldn’t civil servants and teachers enjoy the same right to go to the pub and drink that every other person enjoys?)

On the other hand, I do think it is right that the press expose relevant information when politicians and people with responsibility or power do something that compromises their job. That probably doesn’t include who they sleep with unless they committed a crime in doing so or endangered their impartiality.

How, then, do we call an end to this voyeuristic exposure of people’s lives in tabloids and gossip magazines while still allowing the proper reporting of things that actually affect us? Those who can afford it have turned to the courts and to injunctions. Injunctions have been used to order the media not to report on something that they have discovered such as a celebrity sex scandal. More recently we have had super injunctions which have prevented the press from even reporting that they are subject to an injunction. Then we have hyper-injunctions, where people subject to them are forbidden from talking to their own lawyer or even to their MP. John Hemming MP took great exception to this when he discovered it, and he used “Parliamentary Privilege” to expose an injunction by discussing it in parliament. Parliamentary privilege allows MPs to discuss anything they wish in a parliamentary debate without fear of prosecution. This of course is necessary for the law to function properly, however everything that is discussed in parliament is also recorded in Hansard and broadcast on BBC Parliament and therefore is in full public view. Once discussed in parliament the newspapers and tabloids felt free to discuss the injunction although judges have questioned whether that was legal or not.

In many cases the injunction has become the story and the injunction has fuelled the story and given publicity to the scandal behind it. I have heard from people over and over again that they had never heard of the people that were the subject of an injunction, but that now they had because of the injunction.

The important point is that once exposed, whether through discussion in parliament or through simple gossip and leaks, the internet and social media can get hold of the details and repeat them endlessly. Some of those repeating the information are not even in the UK and are not subject to UK courts so there is nothing that the courts can do to prevent this. In the most recent case twitter has been full of endless tweets and retweets about a certain footballer and Imogen Thomas, fuelled by outrage at his injunction. Some 30,000 people are estimated to have repeated this information. Clearly, in the age of social media, these injunctions are useless.

I think that injunctions have been misused. I believe they are supposed to protect innocent parties from damage caused by pointless publicity but they actually seem to be a tool of the rich. People like you and I cannot afford an injunction; a footballer or a media boss can. Being available only to the rich does not in itself make injunctions wrong, but being used simply to hide infidelity does seem to me to be wrong. If a footballer thought that his reputation would be damaged if people knew that he slept with a Z-list Big Brother contestant, he could have refrained from doing so.

What is the solution to irrelevant gossip destroying people’s lives then? I believe that we need much better oversight of the media industry. The Press Complaints Commission is a toothless, meaningless body that hardly ever rules against the newspapers. We need something much stronger, with much more power, and perhaps much more democratic. Newspapers need to be accountable for inaccurate or even fictional stories, and justice needs to be accessible to everyone and not just those that can afford a libel lawyer. We also must require corrections and apologies by newspapers to be of the same prominence as the original story. That means the an incorrect front page headline must be followed up by putting the correction in as a front page headline. A recent complaint about the Daily Mail making a factually incorrect claim that “Half of claimants are not asked to prove eligibility” has been “corrected” by simply publishing a letter of complaint at the bottom of the story on the website. While that may be seen by future viewers, nearly everyone has seen that story and moved on. No one is going to revisit the story just to see if there is a correction! The PCC considers this to have been “amicably resolved.”

Social media has made injunctions useless. Even the prime minister thinks so, so perhaps now we will see some change. We must have better regulation of the media while at the same time ensuring freedom of the press, which is absolutely necessary for a democratic society to function. We must reform the Press Complaints Commission, and we must stop this purchasing of the law by the rich.


Related Links

Forty Shades of Grey: Ryan Giggs Shagged Imogen Thomas

Telegraph: ‘Hyper-injunction’ stops you talking to MP

Guardian: Privacy law unsustainable in age of social media, says Cameron

Tentacles of Doom: You have zero privacy anyway, get over it

A True Story Of Daily Mail Lies

Baskers World: Sticks and Stones. Perhaps it’s time to go?

News Statesman: The weekend Twitter mocked the English Courts




Technological Isolation

Overjoyed as I am at the fact that we have got a flat to go to and won’t be homeless at the end of the month, there is a problem. When we visited the new flat last week a quick check of all the mobile phones present showed that there was little or no mobile signal on 3, Orange, T-Mobile or O2. My dad did actually receive a call while we were there, but my identical phone on an identical network didn’t pick up a signal at all. Later I looked at coverage checkers at all those networks and Vodafone too. They all show that the signal strength there is “Outdoor only” which means that the signal is so poor that it can’t penetrate walls to allow reception inside the house. As for mobile internet or 3G and mobile broadband, forget it. Not gonna happen.

So having accepted that our mobile phones will probably only ever ring if left on the windowsill, I asked about the landline at the flat. Apparently there is a phone socket, but the current tenant doesn’t actually use it. It will therefore have to be re-connected by BT. Re-connection takes time, and broadband is likely to take ten days after that. In all likelihood, I will not have any telephone or internet for a couple of weeks after moving in. I will also be several miles from people that I know and in no fit state to walk or ride anywhere to see them. I’m going to be cut off.

No phone and no internet makes Steve go crazy.

Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m an internet addict!

Help me.

The fragility of social networks

What would happen if we suddenly lost access to Twitter? This could happen for any number of reasons, either with activists accounts being shut down, or with Twitter itself going offline or being blocked by government.

A friend of mine is worried that if she lost her Twitter account then she would lose contact with the few thousand people that follow her and she has enquired about backing up the names of those followers. There are tools that are able to download and save the names of contacts from Twitter but there is a problem; if the only identifier that you have for someone is their Twitter name, that may not be enough to find them in a post-twitter world. They could easily have used a different name everywhere else even if you knew what service they had moved to.

So how would the anti-cuts movement cope with the loss of Twitter? I suspect that while many people could still stay in touch, whole networks would become fragmented and information would not flow nearly as quickly. Many people that do not use Facebook and perhaps do not use the relevant web pages would be unable to get information from their usual contacts through twitter. They may well eventually find out what they need to know, but it would take much longer.

I do not think that there has been a problem so far with Twitter accounts; I am only aware of spammers being evicted from Twitter, although inevitably there will be some other examples. I think that this will change and it is quite likely to follow the example set by Facebook.

Facebook is not your friend. Facebook is a privately owned business which encourages you to post updates and share information so that it can profit from you. As a private business, Facebook has no obligation to honour the principles of free speech or to provide a service. Facebook can remove pages for any reason it likes. Sometimes it removes pages because they contain discussion of illegal actions or if enough people report the page for containing spam or offensive content. Pages have been removed in the past because of fake copyright claims. The default action in this situation is to remove pages now and ask questions later. Pages could also be removed purely because staff at Facebook don’t like them and being a private company, they don’t have to have a reason. Last week Facebook removed more than fifty anti-cuts and protest related pages without warning. The removal of these pages meant that these groups of people were suddenly fractured and the lists of members and interested people were lost. This is not the first time that protest-related pages have been removed and previous removals have caused massive inconvenience to both organisers and followers. A partial list of affected pages is available here.

Clearly, then, we cannot trust Facebook when organising events, especially if the event might make them nervous or if they fear legal action for facilitating it. I think the same applies or will soon apply to Twitter, and to services such as Livejournal, WordPress, Blogger and others. Even websites are not safe. Websites are hosted by a provider and that provider can be subjected to pressure from lawyers or law enforcement agencies, and when that happens they usually cave in to pressure and pull the website. The safest option is likely to be a privately owned server in a small datacentre but not many can afford that.

Ultimately, my advice is do not trust Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network or service that serves as a point of contact. If there is a person that you wish to stay in touch with even after losing access to these networks, I suggest making sure that you have at least two different methods of contacting them apart from social media. Email and phone number are probably best. Ideally we should organise a phone tree or an email tree as a backup within our protest movements, or perhaps a combination of both.

Further reading

Facebook shoots first, ignores questions later; account lock-out attack works

Stop the facebookpurge!

Political Facebook Groups Deleted On Royal Wedding Day


You have zero privacy anyway, get over it

“You have zero privacy anyway, get over it”

Those words were uttered by Scott Mcnealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, in 1999. It made a big storm at the time in computing circles and left a lot of people outraged. This pre-dated Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, even Friends Reunited and so the age of sharing every intimate detail had not yet arrived but there were signs; in 1997 I and many of my friends at university had personal web sites on which we did share information. In fact, I had my CV available on my web site which I wouldn’t dream of doing now.

In reality, in 1999 privacy was an issue that was both important and not important to me. I was paranoid about my personal email and telephone calls being snooped on and I used PGP to encrypt my email. On the other hand, I happily gave out my name, address, email address, age, girlfriends name, my course at university and more on my university web page and my Tripod web page. Now days I am much more careful with my information and if it is online at all I try to restrict its visibility to just a few people but back then it wasn’t important to me.

I think there are two reasons for that. One reason is simply that web pages were new and exciting technology, and we all got carried away. The other is that individual web pages did not carry the same big-brother overtones that social networks do. When the data is held in one central searchable database it seems very different to many separate web sites. Back in 1999 we barely even had effective search engines, with Google being less than two years old, and so most people looking at a personal web site would be friends, family or colleagues. I first started to lock down my information when I realised that it could have a negative impact in the future. Future employers could easily search the internet for a name and refuse someone a job based on what they see.

With Facebook and other social networks, we are encouraged to share all sorts of personal information. Many people share their complete education history, work history, relationship status, religious beliefs, hobbies, favourite music, film and books, birthday, who they are friends with, status updates and photographs. All this information used to be exposed by default on Facebook, but if you sign up now it will at least mark these things for viewing by friends only. Even so, many teenagers have this information available to everyone and are not even aware that it could be any other way or why they might want that.

Search engines are a huge problem for privacy. Type a persons name into Google, and the chances are that you will find their social networking accounts and their photograph. You will also see personal directories such as which gather a worrying amount of information from social networks, the electoral roll, public records and so on. These directories and search engines make it very difficult to hide yourself from searches.

Another aspect of privacy is tracking. People have been worried for years about being tracked by advertising networks such as Doubleclick. (Now owned by Google.) A lot of people delete browser cookies on a regular basis to prevent this tracking. It is also possible to opt out of this tracking. More recently many websites have started to select adverts to show the viewer based not only on the tracking information but also on data from websites viewed. For example, last year I searched the Halfords website for toolboxes of a certain type. For about a week afterwards I saw adverts for toolboxes of the type I had been interested in shown to me on many web sites.  (I normally block adverts, but I couldn’t at that time.) I could see this being very damaging if it showed adverts for something you wished to keep secret while someone else could see the screen.

In 2008 a company called Phorm tried to go even further. Instead of tracking you only through web sites displaying their adverts, they installed equipment at the heart of the BT network which would look at every web site visited and search made. They would then show adverts on selected websites and those adverts would be selected based on all of your web surfing! Needless to say there was an outcry and even questions by MPs.

Unfortunately the most intrusive tracking is now being entered into voluntarily. The Facebook account seems to have become the universal way to identify someone and lots of websites allow you to sign up or log in through Facebook Connect. The “Like” button has become ubiquitous as sites encourage you to share them with your friends. All of this means that Facebook has a vast knowledge of all the websites that you visit that use these things. This has even extended to a tie-up between Facebook and NHS Choices. The only way around that is to log out of Facebook and delete your browser cookies before visiting any other sites.

Facebook Comments, which allow comments to be left on blogs through your facebook account, are particularly intrusive because they link together your web browsing and your social network. If you enter a comment on a website using this system it will be shared back to Facebook and posted on your wall if you are not careful. That can tell everyone on your friends list what web site you were commenting on and what you said. That may be alright on many occasions, but perhaps more than you want to share on others. The rise of Facebook Comments also means that everyone must use their real name on these web sites. That has led many to ask if it is the death of anonymity. I would imagine that websites discussing sensitive issues are unlikely to use Facebook Comments for this reason. Even Disqus comments, a system which I use on this blog, can allow other people to track your comments from one blog to another. It does at least allow anonymous commenting in most cases.

Etsy and Google Buzz show a typical corporate cavalier attitude to private personal data. When Google introduced Buzz they simply added it to every Google Mail account, and made the personal address books of every user available through Buzz as a contact list. This “on by default” attitude caused a lot of bad press for Google and they quickly changed it to require activation by the user.  More recently Etsy has done the same thing. People that signed up to buy and sell “all things handmade, vintage and supplies” suddenly found their accounts visible to all through Etsy’s new People Search. Feedback that they had left on purchases or on buyers suddenly exposed details of items purchased, and these details show up on search engines too. One woman has had some particularly embarrassing information exposed on Google right next to her CV. All this because the owner of Etsy would like it to become a social network.

The trend is towards sharing more and more information on the internet. I think Scot McNealy was right, although a few years ahead of his time. For all our efforts, privacy is dead, and voluntarily at that. I don’t actually see how it can go any other way though – recent events have shown that information cannot be kept secret any more. Fred Goodwin’s super-injunction could not prevent people from announcing that he was a banker. Dictators in the middle east were unable to prevent pictures and news reports from making it to our TV screens.

I believe this marks a cultural shift in attitude to privacy. In the last ten years people have started to live their lives in a much more open way and to share information and events on the internet in a myriad of ways. In a world where it is commonplace to show photographs of a drunken night out to everyone, or to discuss a relationship break up in public, attitudes to past actions must change. Employers searching out potential employees through Google are going to have to realise that everyone is human and no one is perfect. If they don’t see anything about a candidate to put them off, it probably means that the evidence has been hidden well! As a friend said recently, “These are the first generations to publish their entire lives in the public domain. Future leaders will doubtless hold juvenile views that they later discard and regret.” The public will have to realise that things done in the past do not accurately reflect the views of a politician in the present. If a persons entire past can be seen on the internet, people will have to be a lot more accepting.

It’s a brave new world.

Erasing the past

I am currently bedridden, suffering from ME and an as yet unidentified further illness. Twitter is my lifeline and is what has been keeping me sane, and I have managed to produce some ten thousand or more tweets in the last three months. Having finally given up any hope of managing to work, even through my computer from my bed, I have just started the process of applying for ESA and will be judged on whether I am fit to work or not before I can receive it.

I started to worry that my heavy use of twitter could be used against me in this process. I have already explained how and why I can use twitter without that meaning that I am fit to work, but I also worried that my tweets could easily be taken out of context. For example, a tweet about undertaking an activity of some sort could be used as proof that I can do that all the time. What an investigator would not see is how good or bad a day I was having, how much I had to prepare for and work around the activity, or how much pain and exhaustion that activity would cause for days afterwards.

I think the rumours of investigations into ESA claimants usage of social networks are probably not true, but I don’t want to take that chance. I do not have the energy to fight through an appeal should I be declared fit to work.

And so, on Thursday I took the drastic step of deleting all 12,272 of my tweets. I am fully aware that deleted tweets are not really deleted. Although they will no longer appear in my timeline, they are still there to anyone that knows the direct link to the tweet, they will still appear wherever they have been retweeted. (And some have been retweeted more than a hundred times.) They have been indexed by Google and by Topsy, and many others. What I have tweeted can be quite easily found by someone that is really determined, but I simply wanted to put my tweets beyond the reach of fairly incompetent researchers. Someone that I know has done the same thing to prevent trawling by tabloid journalists.

If you are interested in doing the same thing yourself for any reason, I used two tools to do the job. I had to use two because the first one did not work completely. The first was Twitwipe, found at and the second was Tweet Eraser, found at


This post was intended as a quick explanation for friends that were asking my reasons, but has suddenly become rather popular and has had 500 views in a few minutes. The irony of this has been pointed out to me. If you are here investigating me, please make sure you read all my reasoning, and don’t misquote me.

Relevant earlier posts

If you can tweet you can work, and other such lies

Nothing to hide? I pity you

Inconsequential messages?

A post on Facebook from my brother in law alerted me to something that John Humphrys said about twitter.

“Educated men and women are devoting vast amounts of their time and intellectual energy sending entirely inconsequential messages.”

Yes, it’s true. People do tweet about inconsequential things. Just like people say inconsequential things on the telephone, or in the pub, or in a million other ways. Unfortunately, this has entirely missed the point. Twitter is used for a myriad of things, and even the inconsequential messages are not really inconsequential.

What twitter does:

  • Alert the world to important news from disaster zones and oppressive regimes
  • Get information from people in need of help to the emergency services in relation to the above
  • Raise awareness of causes, be they disasters, missing people, or protest movements
  • Inform and co-ordinate protesters in oppressive regimes
  • Allow planning and co-ordination of protest groups in less totalitarian environments too
  • Keep people informed hours, even days ahead of mainstream news

Those are some pretty important things, but that’s not all twitter can do. What about:

  • Learn from people of many different skills, specialisms and roles, from many different walks of life
  • Provide business networking, leading to real opportunities for jobs or new customers
  • Access to experts to help solve problems in business or personal life
  • Allow customers to force business to react by posting negative experiences
  • Allow business to interact directly with customers and potential customers for research, customer service and to provide information
  • Allow governments to release information to the public easily
  • Allow the public to talk directly with politicians and get a response

And finally:

  • Those “inconsequential” messages – social chatter, moaning, commiseration, joy, depression, support, and friendship, forming real relationships between people
  • Allow those that cannot leave the house to talk to other people and engage in all of the above

I have personally either witnessed or been involved in every one of the points raised above. None of the above would happen if people were not using twitter for inconsequential messages as they wouldn’t be on twitter otherwise! Twitter changes lives and saves lives. The last point in the list above  is a lifeline for myself and for many other sick and disabled people. If you still think that inconsequential, we might have to send someone round to sort you out. I can probably find someone through twitter for that.