As the digital trails we leave behind us on the likes of Twitter and Facebook grow ever longer, like the unchecked glistening path of a slug yet to encounter a toxic pellet, we should be growing increasingly concerned at the ability of others to track back over the course of our lives. It is entirely conceivable that something you tweeted in an angry moment two years ago might cost you a job three years hence. It’s less likely, you’d think, that a really stupid joke could lead to you being accused of terrorism.
Spare a thought for Paul Chambers. Back in January, he planned a blind date with a woman he’d chatted up on Twitter but this was put in jeopardy by the closure of his local airport. He sent a tweet from his mobile phone to his 600 followers. “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!” was the tweet, 136 characters—four short of the maximum number allowed—that led to him being subsequently arrested, interrogated by detectives for seven hours and fired from his accountancy job. Last week he was found guilty under the Communications Act 2003 of sending a menacing electronic message and fined £1,000.
By my reckoning, and I’m no mathematical whizz, if you divide the £1,000 by 136 you get each character (including spaces, one comma, one full stop and two exclamation marks) costing £7.35. It’s a figure less reasonable by light-years than the cost of using your mobile abroad to send a text, and that’s really saying something. Of course the actual cost to Mr Chambers is much, much higher than a grand because he lost his job and accountancy isn’t a minimum wage, how-the-hell-do-you-live-on-that profession.
Prosecuting the man has probably cost the State, and therefore the taxpayer, far more than the fine brings back into Treasury coffers. It has gained for Mr Chambers an immense notoriety of dubious worth to a man trained for his profession and now kicked out of it. Perhaps another accountancy business, one run by someone with a heart and less fearful of Big Brother, will take him on, or maybe he can earn a little from appearing on chat shows to discuss his situation and explain to the rest of us why he thinks jokes about blowing up airports are funny.
I’m not entirely sure as to what the causal connection, between Mr Chambers’ tweet and his employer believing this was grounds for dismissal, might be. If what we tweet on our own phones, that has nothing to do with the boss or the company, can lead to us being sacked, we could all be in trouble. This ridiculous mockery of justice suggests that we are, big time.
Nobody can defend the bad joke. Defending Chambers’ right to tweet a bad joke, however, is entirely different. It is the right of any British person, as far as this writer is aware, to behave like a complete tit and face nothing but chastisement from colleagues, friends and family. Chambers now has a criminal conviction and is unemployed with a past incident that will put off prospective future employers. Burglars, by contrast, have an overwhelming tendency to empty houses of precious heirlooms, expensive electronics and items of irreplaceable sentimental value—and get away with their loot. The police don’t even bother to fingerprint properties after burglaries, let alone even begin an attempt to track down the offenders.
Comedian David Mitchell takes a serious turn in writing about Mr Chamber’s conviction in today’s Observer. “We have accepted that facetiousness, like smoking, while not officially illegal, is absolutely not for public places. I don’t remember agreeing to it and I’m sick of it. It’s boring, I don’t believe it saves a single life and it could do incalculable damage to freedom of speech,” he complains. I couldn’t agree more. Mr Chambers is still tweeting, by the way.
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- Twitter: Tweet-tempered (guardian.co.uk)
- Twitter bomb joker found guilty (news.cnet.com)
- U.K. man convicted for Twitter ‘ threat’ to blow up airport (news.nationalpost.com)
- Briton Convicted for ‘Menacing’ Tweet Against Robin Hood Airport (thelede.blogs.nytimes.com)
- That joke tweet could cost you £1000 and a day in court (thenextweb.com)
- Twitter jokes on trial: how one tweet turned a man into a criminal (trueslant.com)