Leading article: Twitter is not a private conversation


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The Independent Online

Once again, the law is running to catch up with social media. This time, at least, there is little debate about the rights and wrongs of the case.

Unlike some previous instances – such as the Doncaster man controversially convicted of "menace" for making a joke on Twitter about blowing up an airport – derogatory online comments about a rape victim after her attacker, the footballer Ched Evans, was jailed last week have been near universally condemned. And rightly so.

When it comes to the law, however, while it might be possible to build a case against the defamation, it is the revelation of the woman's name that is the more obvious crime. So far, three people have been arrested and the police have warned that there are more to come. It is now up to the Attorney General to decide whether to proceed with prosecution. He must do so, and quickly.

First, of course, is the simple matter of protecting the identity of rape victims. Without such assurances, it is likely that an even smaller percentage of sexual crimes will be reported. But there is also a wider point here, and that too must be upheld.

The benefits of the unprecedented reach of Twitter and its ilk – and their unfettered use – are easy to see, from the world-changing events of the Arab Spring onwards. To ensure that such forums conform to the same standards as their offline equivalents with regards to libel and incitement is no attack on free speech. A remark on Twitter is more akin to publication in a newspaper than to a private conversation, and the law must treat it as such.

Of course there are grey areas, complex questions about what constitutes the public interest that are all too familiar. But the same laws must apply in cyberspace as in the real world. Dominic Grieve must do his bit to ensure they do.