If I were to attempt to attribute an age to the internet, I would describe it as being an adolescent.

It is vibrant, energetic, healthy and full of activity. Social media in particular brings obvious benefits, but carries significant risks.

This is particularly highlighted by the case of student Liam Stacey, who was sentenced to 56 days in jail for tweeting racist comments relating to footballer Fabrice Muamba just after Muamba had suffered cardiac arrest at a match. In mitigation, Stacey alleged the comments were posted on Twitter while he was under the influence of alcohol.

This is the fundamental problem with social media. Comments are posted "in rixa", or in the heat of the moment. And this is where the legal risk lies. Heat of the moment comments are very often ill-considered and can, as in the case of Stacey, be offensive to others.

The internet is no longer the unregulated forum it was during its infancy. There has been increasing confirmation, through judicial pronouncement and the legislature, that the laws which apply to the offline bricks-and-mortar world also apply to the internet. Individuals need to recognise the consequences of their actions. If Stacey would have received a jail sentence had his comments been made offline, should an online occurrence of the same be handled any differently? If anything, the viral nature of social media lends itself more to the proliferation of negative comments.

That is not to say social media is a bad thing. It is the future of communication. It is a means by which businesses can better interact with current and potential customers. It allows for the sharing of information, knowledge and thoughts. It is also a forum through which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, Article 10 is not an absolute, trumps-all right. This is recognised in paragraph two of the Article, which states the "exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society", and then proceeds to list a number of interests subject to which interference by the state in the exercise of the right may be justified. One of the listed interests is "the prevention of disorder or crime".

The key here is recognising that the right of an individual to say what he wants or to express himself freely is subject to "duties and responsibilities". Such duties and responsibilities may have their genesis in law and/or moral and societal norms. In Stacey's case, it was illegal to make the comments he did. By doing so, he was claimed to be inciting racial hatred.

There is a lesson to be learned. There needs to be greater promotion of "netiquette" through robust website terms of use by which individuals are encouraged to put more thought into postings in order not to cause offence or propagate online "flame wars" in the first place.

Daradjeet Jagpal is an Associate in the public sector group at Harper Macleod LLP. He is also a tutor at the University of Glasgow. He specialises in information law.



THIS case raises ethical questions concerning freedom of speech and social media. How are we to think about nasty, offensive and harmful troll-like online behavior? Does it need to be heard and discussed – if only to be "defeated by better ideas"?

We value freedom of speech within some assumed conception of the good in society. Denial of this freedom is widely perceived as a significant human-rights violation, yet imposing some restrictions on the proper exercise of freedom of speech when stakes are high (as when dealing with racist and sexist abuse) is sometimes the price to pay in relation to the value that we place on competing significant ideals.

But why should we value freedom of speech in the first place? And what kind of speech should be protected?

Taking a leaf from John Stuart Mill's classic study On Liberty, one may argue that the content of the speech should not determine whether the speech can or cannot be sanctioned because we all benefit greatly from the experience of exposing and defeating bad ideas with better ideas in the arguments. Mill argued that freedom of expression, including tolerating falsehoods for the sake of truth, is a necessary condition for society's progression.

This argument suggests that examining abusive racist falsehoods expressed in social media can guard against bad ideas rising to the top to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes over and over again.

However, popular opinion (especially as expressed through social media) can impact on our status as autonomous thinkers as we allow ourselves to be swayed too readily by what we read and the ideas we encounter. In other words, the metaphor of "the best ideas rising to the top" may, in fact, not hold true – simply because we do buy into so many unsubstantiated claims that feature in social media. Bernard Williams warned, in 1993, that modern communications technology can contribute negatively to human rights by "reducing the serious discussion of politics and creating an international din of rubbish in which nothing critical can be distinctly heard".

It is likely we are wrong to think that all the beliefs we have are a result of personal reflection and deliberation; rather, many convictions inevitably result from our upbringing. Exercising our deliberative capacities through rational argument with other citizens is therefore needed for us to feel that the ideas we have actually acquired are also ideas we are willing to accept as ours in the proper sense.

I believe the disapprobation and outrage at recent events is not only due to the fact that racially offensive tweeting is wrong in itself (which it is), but also reflects our sense that freedom of speech is jeopardised or even undermined if citizens who engage in social media make harmful and offensive claims and hold themselves beyond reproach. Holding each other responsible as to how we exercise freedom of speech in social media is a way of reinforcing the point of such freedom.

Dr Anna Bergqvist is a philosopher. She teaches in the department of philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on ethics and aesthetics in particular.