'Unwitting' criminals of the Facebook and Twitter generation
MORE than half of Facebook and Twitter users could be routinely risking prosecution according to research exposing mass ignorance of basic legal dangers among internet enthusiasts.
Legal experts warned of an alarmingly poor grasp of the law in areas such as libel, invasion of privacy, copyright, music piracy and even incitement to violence among regular users of popular social networking sites.
Lawyers said that large numbers of people are risking fines and even prison sentences – often unwittingly – for actions as simple as posting a short message or video online.
It follows a study which showed that only around 44 per cent of regular internet users were able to identify a series of legal pitfalls faced by those who regularly post on blogs and social networks or use sites such as YouTube and eBay.
It found that, even in the wake of the summer riots, as many as a third of people who regularly use services such as Facebook, Twitter or BlackBerry Messenger appeared not to realise that posting a message openly organising a looting spree is illegal.
Meanwhile it showed that two thirds would consider posting a message on Twitter openly flouting a court “superinjunction”.
And as many as seven out of 10 had little awareness of what constitutes a libellous message.
Other stark findings of the study, set up by Nominet, the group which runs Britain’s web infrastructure, included that:
:: Half of users were unable to see danger in hacking into other people’s Facebook accounts to make postings or read their private messages.
:: Up to three quarters would risk breaking copyright laws by uploading pictures or songs while almost half would be happy to upload a video filmed illegally at a concert onto YouTube without fear of punishment.
:: Almost half did not think selling fake designer labels on eBay was a problem.
More than 2,000 internet users, of a range of ages, were asked to chose from a series of scenarios under nine different headings, picking out which would be illegal.
One section asked people to imagine riots were again gripping London and other cities and chose from a series of fictional posting on sites such as Facebook or Twitter to say which would be illegal.
A surprisingly low 64 per cent agreed that the message “I’m going to smash up Clapham Boots, who’s with me?” would be illegal.
Only two thirds could see the danger in posting: “Hey, everyone let’s smash up London Bridge.”
When it came to less stark examples, people were even less cautious.
Only 13 per cent could see the legal danger in posting the message “OMG the carnage in London is brilliant!” – a level which fell to as low as eight per cent among 16 to 24-year-olds.
In October the Court of Appeal upheld jail terms of four years each for 21-year-old Jordan Blackshaw and 22-year-old Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, from Cheshire, who used Facebook to encourage a riot which never happened.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said that technology had been a "sinister feature” of the mayhem.
Following the nationwide debate over celebrity “superinjunctions” – such as that taken out by Ryan Giggs to keep his affair with the Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas out of the public eye – the majority seemed happy to openly flout such orders.
Only a third could see that it would be illegal to “retweet” a message posted by someone else naming the subject of an injunction.
Whe the scores were combined the avaerage pass rate for the different sections was just 44 per cent suggesting that more than half the population are routinely breaking the law.
Jonathan Armstrong, a technology lawyer who analysed the results for Nominet’s “Know the Net” campaign, said the results were startling.
“The real worry from my point of view is just how many people were at risk,” he said.
“The world has changed … you are not just talking to your friends across the table in the pub, it’s like going to Times Square with a loud hailer saying: ‘I predict a riot, lets all go and riot’.”
He said that while traditional broadcasters or journalists might spend years training and working their way up before having access to a national or international audience, people can now reach large audiences on Twitter instantly.
“A 14-year-old girl can walk into a mobile phone shop on Saturday and walk out a broadcaster, with no training, with no intuitive knowledge,” he said.
He warned that one area in which people are taking some of the biggest legal risks is in copyright infringement, which can carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.
“The internet has the memory of an elephant, it never forgets,” he warned.
“We are seeing some people going through the court process but we are seeing more people suffer permanent blots because employers are checking up references, using social media themselves to do that.”