Social Media Firms Agree to Remove Posts Which Could Collapse Trials

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Social media companies have agreed “takedown” arrangements with the Attorney General’s Office to ensure that prejudicial comments about active trials are removed quickly.

The new arrangement will see Facebook, Twitter and Google work to rapidly remove posts if they are in contempt of court. The system, announced by Solicitor General Robert Buckland, will cover live trials and has been heralded as a decision that will help to protect the “integrity” of the trial by jury process.

Each of the social media firms has agreed to instate a special point of contact for the procedure, with Mr. Buckland confirming:

“There will be a named person in each organisation who my officials can contact to deal speedily with issues of contempt of court where takedown is what needs to happen.”

In addition, new advice will be issued for jurors to emphasise that it is a criminal offence for them to conduct online searches about their case.

On this topic, Mr. Buckland said: “Social media users must think before they post – the rules are the same as those for traditional media, and being found in contempt of court could result in a fine or up to two years in prison.”

Social media poses “relatively minor” threat to trials

The government report comes after the AG’s office call for evidence about the impact of social media on criminal trials, after violations of court procedure via social media led to the need for a retrial in a 2016 murder case.

That case led the Court of Appeal to take the unprecedented step of banning media groups from publishing reports of the trial on their Facebook pages or allowing comments on their online articles, using powers under the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

However, based on their research, the government has now concluded that social media poses a “relatively minor” threat to the integrity of trials. According to the report’s findings:

“The evidence received suggests that while there are new challenges with the use of social media, these challenges are not unmanageable.”

“Indeed, the relatively low volume of responses suggests the scale of the problem is more limited in scope than the original R v F&D case might have suggested.”

For this reason, the report concludes that the rise of social media is not having enough of an impact on criminal trials to warrant new laws to protect fair trials.

Government to consider tech companies’ duties

Legally, it remains unclear who is responsible for social media comments which violate the law – the media organisations on whose social media pages the comments are posted, or the social media platforms themselves.

A white paper due this year from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is set to consider whether the government currently has sufficient powers to force social media companies to strictly observe contempt of court rues.

The government is taking steps to work more closely with technology companies on the issue of social media violations of court proceedings and this will be a crucial step in clarifying the law and protecting trials from new risks posed by technology.

Recent progress includes Google’s “commitment to act quickly when notified of inappropriate autocompletes by the authorities” and development of an “improved and prominent feedback tool,” after a few cases saw autocomplete suggestions violate the law.

In the “rare” cases, the victims of sex offences – who are automatically given lifetime anonymity under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 – and others granted anonymity orders were named when Google users entered their attacker’s name into the website’s search bar.

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