Apr 152012
 
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With apologies to those of you of a rather more delicate disposition, here are some swear words.

In Spanish, “hijo de puta” literally means “son of a whore”.  I suppose it can also very loosely translate as “cunt”.  Meanwhile, “de puta madre” literally means “of a whore-mother”.  I suppose it can also very loosely translate as “the very best thing in the world”.

Such are the complexities of language.

I’m not sure we’re really aware of the implications of such complexities.

Sunny reports today on this rather unhappy case which appears to involve a tweeter being convicted of swearing on Twitter:

A blogger and tweeter – Olly Cromwell – was found guilty on Friday, 13th April, simply for swearing at a Bexley, London, councillor in a Twitter message.

The background to this case does, however, seem a little more complex than this (to be fair to Sunny he does then go on to explain some of the salient ins and outs of it), and there is even – at least for me – a whiff of potential super-injunction in the air.  Is, for example, everything as it should be in the council which appears to be involved at least tangentially?  Nor am I entirely sure whether posting names and addresses of sitting councillors should be counted as an offence – when I was a parish councillor, I’m pretty sure my address and even telephone number were listed on the parish council’s website and other documentation.  Clearly material in the public domain.

What might conceivably be considered a potential offence is, however, encouraging the committing of violence against an individual after posting details of where they live.

I’m not saying that’s what happened here – I’m just trying to understand what appears to be a very murky situation.

Sunny goes on to indicate that the prosecution has stated the following:

The prosecution alleged he called a senior Bexley councillor a ‘cunt’ and are seeking a custodial sentence of 45 days for each letter of the word.

Now without knowing the implications of the law behind the above-mentioned situation, this does seem a manifestly absurd circumstance.  With such an argument, we could end up playing a Kafka-like game of legal Scrabble.  If, for example, Cromwell had used the word “cock”, would the prosecution have asked for an extra few days for the letter “k”?  Or if the word “bastard” had been used instead, could we have seen him banged up for seven letters and two syllables?

Paul leaves a comment at the foot of Sunny’s piece which attempts to provide some context to the whole case.  I reproduce it here in full:

a) What has this got to do with Bexley Council? I can’t immediately see any suggestion that the council, as an entity, has had anything to do with this? It may simply be a result of a complaint either by the cllr or by a third party.

b) He can’t have been charged on Friday if there was a pre-trial hearing in December. The charge must have been laid previously in order for a PTH to take place

c) Prosecutions don’t ‘seek’ particular sentence values in British courts. Their jobs is simply to charge and prove guilt in the case of a not guilty plea (except in the fairly rare occurence of a Newton hearing, where guilt is already established but there is then a process to argue out the seriousness of the offence, and even then the prosecution wouldn’t normally argue for a specific level of sentence). It is for the judiciary/magistracy to apply within the parameters of the law, and with a view to sentecing guidelines. I assume (for now) that the 6 months figure is simply the maximum for the sec 127 charge in question. Sentences are rarely the maximum, which are often very high relative to the charge in order to provide flexibility.

The whole thing looks ridiculous but there are some bits in this and the linked reports that don’t hang together.

It certainly does seem strange.  I’m inclined right now not to come down either on one side or the other, but simply to wonder whether what I wrote recently about Twitter’s own business model isn’t directly responsible in some important way for the increasing numbers of problems we’re having with what we say supposedly “ephemerally” on its network:

[…] It seems to me that the big issue with Twitter and the law lies precisely in a question of framing.  And the framing has been done by agencies quite outside the common populace.  So whilst we suffer the consequences of the confusion thus engendered, we really are not to blame for overstepping the multitude of marks.

Twitter, Facebook and all the rest set up their stalls with the idea that the casual throwaway over-the-garden-fence kind of conversation could be replicated online with virtual tools.  Most of us thought, when we ventured onto such terrain, that we would have the freedom to extend our local village globally.  The rules would remain the same – the right to irreverent, racist, sexist and beyond-the-pale remarks would continue to be a par for the course.

What we didn’t realise at all was that our ephemeral occurrences were actually part of Twitter and Facebook’s business models.  There was absolutely no intention for the ephemeral to be treated as such.

And as I then went on to underline:

[…] Twitter and Facebook are actually as resilient and permanent as an interrogation and signed interview sheet at your local police station.

Which does make me think that sooner or later a legal defence might be mounted with the above-described business model as an obvious explanation for, as well as a direct cause of, very many of the ills that are afflicting social network users across the world.

Even, that is to say, in allegedly democratic countries.

I also am minded to ask the following question: if I used the Spanish word “gilipollas” – probably a closer and better translation of the English word “cunt” – to describe on a mainly English-language Twitter stream the characteristics of an English-speaking person I summarily disapproved of, and in that clearly unephemeral way we must now get accustomed to, would the British legal profession eventually consider me guilty of some crime?  And would they strive to give me 45 days for each letter of the word in question?

If the answer to both questions was – eventually – a yes in each case, this would surely be the first time in the history of the world where verbosity was punished by a profession hardly noted for its brevity, and where the many wonders of a creative bilingualism were punished for their literary ingenuity.

On a day Google’s Sergey Brin accuses Facebook of carving up the open Internet, it would be fascinating – if also terrifying – to conclude that the British legal profession actually wants to punish us in terms of the register of language we use.

For here’s another thought to be going away with: just imagine if Cromwell had described the councillor in question as being a “wally” or a “moron” – or simply, quite straightforwardly, a “liar”.  Would any or all of those have passed muster where “cunt” clearly didn’t?  Or are we getting to the point where even such mildly unparliamentary language will also end up being policed on social networks?

As if there weren’t enough criminals already allegedly perambulating through the ether, they’re now looking to criminalise a whole new generation of techno-savvy communicators.

First, they pop the sweet in your mouth; then, they take it away.

The way of the world from the origins of the universe perhaps?

And I’m not even sure what’s exactly wrong about all of the above – but something about this social network stuff is beginning to smell extremely bad.

Follow the money, my dear friends.  Follow the money.  Those business models I mentioned … mark my words, that’s where the crux of the matter will finally lie.


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