The United Kingdom will not survive the 21st century

Paul Chambers’ appeal was thrown out today, the Doncaster court once again finding him guilty and chucking another £2500-odd prosecution fees at him. I’ve written about Paul before (here and here) so I won’t repeat myself, especially as others are commenting and reporting on the case far more eloquently than myself (Martin Wainwright was there, Evan Harris offers a rational response, and don’t forget Paul’s superhero lawyer David Allen Green who will no doubt be blogging soon).

What I will do is urge you to support Paul by donating to his appeal fund, which you can do by clicking here.

If you don’t have much interest in Paul Chambers’  case, or even if you think he was a bit of a twat for tweeting his bad joke, you should still donate, and here’s why:

This isn’t just about Paul Chambers anymore. In fact, while I sympathise with Paul and will support him until he is once more a free man, he’s ultimately just a single symptom of a disease that has spread relentlessly through the UK’s infrastructure.

Note that I say infrastructure. This disease does not generally affect ordinary men and women, who are largely immune to its effects and simply get on with their lives. It’s a disease that specifically affects lawmakers and law enforcers, and it’s a disease that will kill the UK in the 21st century if action is not taken.

The double-whammy of the ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ and the Digital Economy Act have positioned the UK as a place where you do not want to be if you have anything to do with internet communications or online business.

This is a country ruled by politicians that do not understand the internet and who are happy to stifle the emerging markets so as to prop up archaic and irrelevant corporations from the last century that are clinging onto their crumbling empires.

This is a country with a justice system that is run by people that have no comprehension of online communications and culture and barely understand basic human behaviour and interaction.

When a bad joke can get you arrested and convicted, something has gone horrifically wrong.

Even in the case of Gareth Compton there are no sensible grounds for arrest. The guy would seem to be a prize fool with a rather unpleasant sense of humour, but his fate should be determined by voters or the leaders of his party: again, making a bad joke should not and cannot be illegal.

Increasingly, the UK’s policies, laws and judges are making it a hostile place for the internet and those that live and work through it. If this continues, the UK will be left behind as the world changes and evolves over the next 50-100 years. We’ll be left as nothing but a curious backwater, regarded as a poor ‘developing’ country that missed the boat when the flood came and which is lamely trying to catch up.

It’s difficult to comprehend why this is actually happening. As I see it there are two possible explanations for the Digital Economy Act and Twitter Joke Trial existing at all:

  1. Deliberate malice: elements within the government and justice system know exactly what they are doing and are taking the country in a calculated direction that serves their own desires.
  2. Ignorance and stupidity: the government and justice system genuinely don’t understand the 21st century and these problems are arising due to a lack of knowledge and understanding. Everything is a result of them blindly leading the country down a dead-end street without realising.

Either explanation is unacceptable. We can’t allow leaders that wish to destroy the country for their own personal gain, or leaders that are uninformed and unintelligent.

In both cases it is largely a generational issue: none of these people grew up with the internet. It appears that the judges and police forces involved with the Twitter Joke Trial have had to have Twitter explained to them extensively and repeatedly, while it was evident throughout the Digital Economy Bill that very few politicians had even a vague understanding of copyright, piracy or the online economy. The government and judiciary are increasingly out of step with wider society.

We could just wait for them all to retire or die, at which point informed people would theoretically take the reins. Except that would leave people like Paul Chambers to suffer in the interim period, which cannot be allowed. And let’s not underestimate the chances of the disease mutating, spreading beyond the internet and infecting every aspect of British life until all our freedoms are nothing more than cherished memories.

As well as donating to the appeal fund (an appeal that is not just about Paul but the fate of the country and anybody who has ever connected to the internet) I hope that the anger found in the #twitterjoketrial hashtag on Twitter will spill over into the streets, bringing awareness (peacefully!) of these issues to the wider public and demanding changes to a broken law system.

It might seem like this is just a silly trial about a guy that made a stupid bomb joke, but it’s actually a pivotal moment in UK history.

In the 21st century the Luddites are the government and the judiciary. Two hundred years ago they were wrong and they’re wrong today. I wrote something back in April that still applies:

What a lot of these politicians don’t realise, and neither do the big media corporations, is that the Internet is coming for them. They can legislate as much as they like but it won’t make a difference. It’s coming and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until there’s a new order, whether in a year, ten years or fifty years. They can either ride with us or be swept aside.


Paul Chambers’ appeal is today

I wrote about Paul Chambers back in May, a few months after he’d been convicted or sending a threatening message via Twitter by the CPS, resulting in him losing his job and receiving a criminal record.

While Paul’s conviction is worrying enough as it is, given the obviously jokey and hyperbolic nature of his tweet, the wider implications are yet more severe. Particularly:

  1. Security staff, police and – primarily – the Crown Prosecution Service seem to be incapable of distinguishing between a harmless joke (even if it was in poor taste) and a serious terrorist threat. This not only means that innocent people like Paul get prosecuted over nothing but that the authorities have almost no chance of identifying and stopping real terrorists. Why do we give such incompetent organisations the responsibility of protecting us, both from external and internal threats? It would seem that the CPS’ woeful lack of comprehension of human behaviour and their abuse of the justice system are far greater threats than isolated terrorists.
  2. The nature of the conviction in this case means that anybody can be convicted of the same offence if they write down a similar message in a digital form. Crucially, intent and context do not matter, according to the judge. In other words, simply quoting Paul’s tweet in a blog so as to discuss the case could actually get you convicted of the same thing. This hasn’t happened, yet, but it does serve to highlight the flimsy and ridiculous situation of Paul’s conviction. Should the government or the CPS be slightly less jovial than the current one, however, these laws would give them the power to crack down on any digital communications they even vaguely disliked.

Paul’s appeal is today.

Anybody that likes being able to communicate via digital messages (email, Facebook, twitter, text messages, video, music…you name it) has an interest in this case.

If you’d like to offer Paul some support, at 10am there will be a minor flurry of civil disobedience on Twitter. At that point anybody so inclined should tweet the following:

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! #twitterjoketrial Will the police now arrest me?

That is a line from Betjeman’s celebrated poem ‘Slough’. By the same application of law that convicted Paul Chambers, simply quoting Betjeman can get you arrested, charge and convicted as well.

The point, of course, is to highlight the absurdity of Paul’s conviction and how it simply cannot stand. The aim is to highlight how intent and conviction are always of utmost importance, far more so than the individual words.

Here’s hoping that today’s appeal goes well for Paul. This is a test case that will tell us a lot about how the UK’s legal system views the internet and 21st century communications in general.

Paul Chambers, Twitter and justice

I became aware of a man called Paul Chambers today. As best I can tell, Paul is an entirely normal sort of chap. A bit like me, a bit like you. He has an active online presence, including regular updates to Twitter.

In January of this year, after heavy snowfall closed his local airport in the same week he was planning to fly to meet a potential girlfriend for the first time, he tweeted the following message:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!

Your views on that particular comment will vary, of course. You might think he was a bit of an idiot for posting something like that publicly. Some people, including the judge, Jonathan Bennett, have said that the message was of a ‘menacing nature in the context of the time we live in’ and that Paul deserved his conviction.

That’s right, conviction. As in, criminal conviction. Paul has been convicted under the communications act for the offence of sending a menacing message, and is now the proud owner of a criminal record and a £1000 fine. For a silly, throwaway comment. The fallout has resulted in him losing his job and having his accountancy studies curtailed due to the criminal conviction. In other words, it has royally screwed up his life.

But let’s be clear here. It isn’t the silly comment that has dragged Paul into a complete nightmare. To blame the tweet, or to blame Paul, is to miss the larger point. The guilty party here isn’t Paul but our cracked, absurdist society in which an obvious (if not particularly witty) slapstick comment leads to a criminal conviction. The guilt lies with a judge and a police force, so out of touch that they don’t understand the context of social media systems such as Twitter and can’t comprehend how it relates to modern communications – ironic given the name of the act that convicted Paul. The guilt lies with Tony Blair, George Bush and all their followers that have helped to create a society of fear, paranoia and tension.

There were people that saw this coming. People that pointed out the gradual erosion of civil liberties. People that noted how the police were using anti-terror powers to arrest people at Labour conferences simply because they raised a voice of dissent. People that campaign against the Digital Economy Bill when they noticed that it contained clauses that had the potential to destroy the UK internet.

Others said that there was nothing to worry about. That as long as you didn’t do anything wrong you had nothing to fear. That you’d only complain if you were a terrorist, a criminal or a pirate.

The case of Paul Chambers sets a precedent that cannot be allowed to stand. The police and the judge in this case clearly do not understand Twitter (apparently Paul had to explain how it worked to the police when he was arrested), and possibly don’t understand general human behaviour either (how many times have we all said or written ridiculously hyperbolic statements of this sort?). Not only should Paul be cleared, but those involved in the investigation and conviction should be closely examined for wasting public money and general incompetence.

The Crown Prosecution Service exists to protect society. This conviction serves only to dismantle society and replace it with a collective sense of fear – a fear of the state that will make the fear of terrorism seem inconsequential.

Stephen Fry has already offered to pay the fine on Paul’s behalf, but that won’t cover everything, especially an appeal and retrial. You can donate to a fund that will help Paul pay his legal costs here.

Paul himself has written about his experience here. (Major kudos to the Guardian for giving him this opportunity to state his case)

If you need further convincing, read Graham Linehan’s thoughts on the case here.

Here’s a more technical analysis of the arrest and conviction process in Paul’s case.

You can complain to the CPS here.

Finally, you can follow Paul on twitter. I recommend it – he’s really quite funny.

It’s time to mobilise in Paul Chambers’ defense. The UK justice system has failed him utterly and can’t be allowed to continue in this manner. If we let this stand they’ll be coming for us next.