Don't tipple and tweet. Or criticise the King of Bahrain ....

“Don’t drink and dial” was the famous advice from the 2004 film Sideways. These days we should probably say “Don’t tipple and tweet”.  Or: “Don’t binge and blog”.

Today’s publication by the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer of new “interim guidelines” for prosecutors over when - and when not - to consider a prosecution of social media users is a sign of the times. (See the video from October when Starmer was laying out his emerging thinking).

Most media interest in the guidelines is centring on the fact that there's to be a “high threshold” test for a communication (which can include a re-tweet) to be considered “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false”. Starmer says that in many such cases “a prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest”. It seems that most "drunk tweets" are unlikely to be prosecuted. This still leaves other categories of offence in place, namely (to cite the guidelines):

1. Communications which may constitute credible threats of violence to the person or damage to property.

2. Communications which specifically target an individual or individuals and which may constitute harassment or stalking within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 or which may constitute other offences, such as blackmail.

3. Communications which may amount to a breach of a court order. This can include offences under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 or section 5 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992. All such cases should be immediately referred to the Attorney General and via the Principal Legal Advisor's team where necessary.

OK, sounds fairly reasonable. The test will surely be in the application. Will prosecutors apply the guidelines sensibly and consistently in often complex and sometimes unanticipated situations, where new technology and the ever-growing use of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, (ahem) Instagram etc are sometimes running ahead of the law-makers?

We’ll see. Further afield it’s hardly such a delicate balancing act. The authorities in some countries evidently see social media as just another bit of terrain onto which to drive their tanks. In China we had the notorious case of the woman sent to a labour camp for a solitary political tweet. In Kuwait a blogger has been jailed for ten years for "blasphemous" tweets and ones considered insulting to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In fact, tweets about Bahrain's ruling royals seem especially dangerous. Just last month a group of Bahrainis were jailed for "publicly insulting the King" in messages they posted on their Twitter accounts (deemed an offence under Article 214 of Bahrain’s Penal Code). Dangerous times to be a keen political tweeter in Manama ...

I could go on. I will! Just one more. In Russia, the government has introduced new powers to shut down websites without a court order if they’re considered to be publishing “prohibited” information (“prohibited” remaining undefined). Russian web content writers: take note. Russian Twitter users tempted to link to political or "foreign agent" NGO sites: take note.

Back in Britain the free speech/social media debate has largely been about libel, about the endangering of criminal trials, and about trolling and other kinds of abuse. Too much for me here. Suffice it to say that we should be very wary of criminalising users. The emergence of new voices from the "margins" is, by and large, A GOOD THING. True, people can get over-excited by the "power" of something like Twitter (see my colleague Stuart Houghton's sensible advice on how to try to conduct yourself in this brave new world). But still, greater media plurality and pesonal empowerment is generally to be welcomed.

Meanwhile kids, it's probably not a good idea to get wasted and then reach for your iPhone/Samsung/BlackBerry. “Drunk Britain goes on abusive Twitter binge” is exactly the sort of tabloid headline you expect to read these days (as me and my mother were saying just the other day over a few sambucas). Here a bit of self-censorship is in order. Or, you can always get the "drunk timer" app to stop you sending anything you might later regret ...

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