No new Twitter laws, please — we've got trolls under control, say police

Senior police officers shrug off suggestions they need new legislation to deal with Twitter abuse, saying all it takes is a 'common sense' approach to trolling and existing powers

Police leaders have rebuffed calls for new laws to deal with Twitter trolling, after the arrest of a teenager for abusing British Olympic diver Tom Daley.

In general, police are happy using existing powers, according to Stuart Hyde, chief constable of Cumbria and head of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

While forces will take action if a victim's life is being made a misery by trolls, overally they will take a "common sense" approach to reports of Twitter abuse, he said.

"We do not want police officers dragged off the streets to deal with frivolous complaints," Hyde told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Saturday. "However, where those complaints are pretty serious and go beyond the law and breach the Data Communications Act... then it is quite right that we intervene, and we can do that," he said.

"We have got quite a lot of legislation, dating right back to the Malicious Communications Act of 1998 and 2003. There is a lot there that helps us and gives us the power to do stuff," he added.

Abusive Tweets sent to diver Tom Daley have ignited calls for new laws Image credit: CNET UK

Earlier this week, Dorset police decided to arrest a 17-year-old on suspicion of sending malicious communications to Daley after the diver failed to win a medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The teenager was issued a harassment warning for threatening to drown Daley and for saying he had let his recently deceased father down.

Hyde defended the arrest, saying it is important to look at the whole context of the communication.

"It is not just one Tweet — it is a whole range of Tweets. Look at what the individual has done — is this a concerted individual attempt to have a go at an individual in a way that passes the threshold for offences against the law? If it is, then clearly we should intervene and do something to stop it."

In March, Liam Stacey was jailed for 56 days for posting racist Tweets about sick Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba, while other Twitter users have been handed a suspended sentence and community orders over abusive messages. 

However, a high court in London last week overturned the conviction of Paul Chambers for sending a menacing message on Twitter. South Yorkshire Police and prosecutors pursued the case for more than two years, even though Chambers posted only a single Tweet threatening to blow up a snowbound local airport if it didn't open for business within a week.

Asked about the Twitter joke trial, Hyde said police are still learning about social media and there are things they sometimes get wrong.

"This is a new technology, a new way of communicating. It has grown exponentially," he said. "There hasn't been separate legislation, so we are using legislation that wasn't particularly created for this. But it works reasonably well most of the time."

In addition, police forces expect Twitter itself to keep a lid on abuse, according to Hyde.

"There is a case that says if you are going to run it as a commercial organisation, then you have got to allow people to use it safely and securely, and also have the processes in place where people are acting in a strange way — and the term troll comes to mind — that you get them off as quick as possible," he said.

While Hyde said the police are not getting a lot of complaints from people on Twitter, Police Federation spokesman Steve Evans told Today the size of the social network could put a strain on forces.

"The sheer scale of it is huge," Evans said. "Police resources are stretched almost to breaking point so if we started trying to investigate every instance of stupidity within Twitter then we would be really pushed."