Man jailed for “despicable” comments about missing April Jones

A man who admitted to posting “despicable” comments about missing five-year-old April Jones on his Facebook page has been jailed for 12 weeks. Matthew Woods appeared at Chorley Magistrates’ Court today, where he pleaded guilty to “sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive” (section 127 (1) a of the Communications Act 2003). Woods’ comments, which included some of a sexually explicit nature about the youngster who went missing last week, were deemed so “abhorrent” that they deserved the longest sentence that could be passed, less a third to account for Woods’ early guilty plea.

The Communications Data Bill – what Index says

Index on Censorship has submitted our concerns about the UK government’s proposed Communications Data Bill (widely known as the “snoopers charter”). We have several concerns about the government’s proposals, as surveillance and retention of data can undoubtedly have an effect on free expression. I’ll reproduce the introduction to our submission,  which outlines our concerns, here, and you can read the full submission below.

The Communications Data Bill as currently drafted would directly undermine both the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression by making surveillance and storage of UK citizens’ communications data the norm. These rights are enshrined in Articles 8 and 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and in the European Convention on Human Rights and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UNDR explicitly states that: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”.

Collection and filtering of communications data across the whole British population would not only represent an unacceptable breach of privacy but would also undermine freedom of expression. Index on Censorship – as one of the world’s leading freedom of expression organisations – has monitored censorship and surveillance around the world for forty years. The goals of widespread monitoring, information-collection and storage, and surveillance of a whole population are aims that are normally found only in authoritarian and totalitarian states, such as Iran and China, not in democracies who are bound, through their accession to the human rights conventions mentioned above, and through their commitments to democracy and freedom, only to limit free expression where it is necessary on clear grounds of national security and public order and to impose any limits in a proportionate and limited manner.

Population-wide collection and filtering of communications data is neither necessary nor proportionate. Monitoring and surveillance of this kind impacts directly and in a chilling manner on freedom of expression, inhibiting and restricting individuals in how they receive, share and impart information and encouraging self-censorship. No other democracy has gone as far as the government proposes in this bill that the UK should go. As well as representing a major undermining of privacy and freedom of expression in the UK, this bill, if it became law, would be a direct encouragement and justification for authoritarian regimes to monitor in detail their entire populations online as well as off. It would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the UK to challenge these regimes on their censorship and surveillance of their populations. It is also remarkable that, in a memorandum attached to the draft bill on the compatibility of the bill with the European Convention on Human Rights, the government sees fit to focus only on the right to privacy and makes no mention of the potentially chilling and damaging impacts of the bill on freedom of expression.

The declared purpose of this bill is to tackle crime and to ensure national security. This type of in-depth monitoring of the entire population has at no point before been used or introduced as an appropriate crime-prevention or security-promoting tool in the UK. It would represent a reversal of the presumption of innocence and an unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of the British population.

Furthermore, the fact that new technology makes such population-wide data collection, filtering and monitoring possible is not a justification for using the technology in that manner. Such data collection would represent a major step-change in the amount of information available on individual citizens and is not, as has been claimed, simply a step to ensure information already available offline is also available from online sources. The distinction between ‘subscriber’, ‘use’ and ‘traffic’ data and data content is also a misleading one. The range of data that would be collected as ‘communications data’ would enable a detailed picture of individual’s habits, activities, interests, and opinions to be built up going well beyond any population-wide accumulation of data that has happened until now in the UK.

If you want to add your voice, you can sign 38 Degrees petition here;

Avaaz also has a petition here;

And Open Rights Group allows you to write directly to your MP here

Comms Data Bill Index Submission 22 August 12

Why the porn trial verdict is no reason to celebrate

Red faces over at the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police, as a jury took under three hours to clear former aide to London Mayor Boris Johnson , Simon Walsh of a string of charges brought under “extreme porn” laws. Indeed, were Twitter an accurate reflection of the nation’s views on a topic, Keir Starmer, Head of the CPS and all those involved in the prosecution would this afternoon be looking for new jobs: such has been the mix of disbelief and outrage that public money and police time should be wasted on footling state attempts to interfere in the private lives of consenting adults.

The case began last April when Police arrested Walsh, a barrister and one-time hopeful for the post of Lord Mayor of the City of London, on charges of possessing extreme pornographic images. Or more precisely, of possessing images that, contrary to Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 were taken for pornographic purposes and depicted realistic scenes of acts causing harm or likely to cause harm to one or more of the participants.

For the last 14 months, Walsh’s life has been on hold, as he waited for the case to come to trial. He eventually got to court in London last week, with the jury quickly being immersed in what probably felt like far too much information about certain sexual practices.  In particular, the use of urethral sounds in erotic play — the insertion of medical equipment inside the urethra — and anal fisting.

Since it didn’t appear as though those participating in the action had actually come to any real harm, it was left to medical experts called by the prosecution to attest to how, in the wrong hands, such techniques could result in harm. Against such an assertion by one expert, Mr Vivek Datta, consultant colorectal surgeon at Guys & Thomas’ NHS Trust, was ranged the much more telling results of the Gay Men’s Sex Survey taken in 2006 and handed out at sexual health clinics.

This found that some 12.8 per cent of those asked had participated in fisting, which, crudely extrapolated, suggested that the number of men participating in fisting in London alone could be close to 30,000 in a year.

There followed expert evidence for the defence from Dr Clarissa Smith, reader in sexual cultures, and Chris Ashford, reader in Law and Society, both at the University of Sunderland. Dr Smith argued that the images in question were not strictly “pornographic”, disputed a CPS claim that those who attend sexual health clinics were more likely to engage in risky sexual practices than the rest of the population and flatly rejected argument by the CPS that she would take a different view if the images in question involved women.

She was then subject to an astonishing personal attack as prosecution counsel, in summing up, described the evidence she had given as “disingenuous, self-serving and dishonest”. But in spite of the prosecution’s efforts, Walsh today walked free from court.

So where does this acquittal leave the law?  On the plus side, it continues a trend, now well established, that with proper defence, juries do not on the whole agree with state nannying — or the view that the CPS has a right to dictate what images consenting adults may view in private.  Particularly when those images are of acts that are themselves wholly legal to carry out.

However, the trend in extreme porn convictions continues to be sharply upward: over 1300 last year as opposed to the 30 per year that civil servants estimated would be the going rate when the law was first mooted in parliament.  That does not include the number of cautions, which, despite counting as criminal convictions, do not figure in the stats.

In practice, it is not so much an extreme porn law as a kind of “dangerous dogs” act — since the bulk of convictions (over 90 per cent) have been obtained in respect of possession of images of bestiality — often a result of someone receiving an image from a friend and failing to delete it before the police happened to look at his phone.

That trend is repeated in this case, where there was some doubt as to whether Simon Walsh had ever actually looked at the images in question.

However, the effect of this law is pernicious.  It doesn’t seem to have done much to stem the tide of porn that so many politicians obsess about.  It has given police and prosecution another stick with which to beat the unwary — and to punish them should they not be punishable for any other crime.

Those who merely read the court reports may not fully get the devastation that such cases cause to individuals.  And this devastation is a fact wilfully exacerbated by the CPS, who frequently insist on putting individuals through months of pre-trial angst before withdrawing the charges in the first hour of the trial.

As happened to one charge in this case: a suggestion that a picture that Walsh possessed of a man in a gas mask could also constitute extreme porn.

For all that this result has been embarrassing to the CPS, they continue to make progress on what is beginning to feel like a serious moral agenda at the heart of their practice.  Calls for review of prosecuting practice have followed swiftly.  Ian Dunt, of, thinks it is time to look again at the culture within the CPS: Ben Goldacre wonders aloud whether it is mere coincidence that a lawyer who has made a career of bringing corrupt police officers to book should be the target of such legal manoeuvring, also suggesting “we need an inquiry into why CPS and police keep bring these [cases]”.

Lawyer and New Statesman blogger David Allen Green Tweeter Mike Ward @Schroedinger99 suggested that the CPS should spend more time worrying about mens rea and less about men’s rears.

Still, there is something worrying about the course that this trial took.  The extreme porn law, lest those with short memories forget, was initially introduced to deal with images of extreme harm — actual or potential — in a sexual context.

We have already seen, in the Video Recordings Act, how judges are capable of shifting the goalposts, making “potential harm” the yardstick by which cases are to be judged — although again, it is a selective sort of potential, that prosecutes images of fisting but leaves the “potential harm” of ultraviolent films untouched.

But one further disconcerting element arose in the judge’s summing up today: for “harm”, which in the original conception of the law was clearly the depiction of physical harm can now refer to “physical, mental or moral harm”.

In other words, the CPS may have ended losing this particular battle and looking like asses — but in the longer game, the policing of private sexuality, they have just notched up a signal victory.

*David Allen Green points out in the comments that it was Mike Ward who came up with the mens rea/mens rears joke

The trial was tweeted by Simon Walsh’s lawyer Myles Jackman — who blogs as Obscenity Lawyer —  and legal researcher Alex Dymock

Jane Fae is a writer who has made her focus the intersection of the law, IT, policing – and sex and sexuality.  She can be found regularly writing on issues of individual and sexual liberty, with a distinctly feminist tinge.  She is also a national co-convenor for Consenting Adult Action Network. You can follow her on her blog  or on twitter: @JaneFae