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Why is it illegal to be rude on the internet?

Chris Jackson/Getty

When Britain went into lockdown in March 2020, says Bagehot in The Economist, the 99-year-old World War II veteran Captain Tom Moore began doing laps of his garden on a Zimmer frame to make money for charity. He ended up raising £33m and the Queen gave him a knighthood. But the oddest part of the story came a year later, after he died. Joe Kelly, a Celtic fan from Glasgow, tweeted: “The only good Brit soldier is a deed one, burn auld fella, buuuuurn.” For that tweet, which was online for 20 minutes before he deleted it, Kelly was charged, threatened with jail, and eventually sentenced to 150 hours of community service. The Communications Act of 2003, which stipulates that anyone sending a “grossly offensive” or “indecent” message could face prison, effectively makes it “illegal to be rude on the internet”.

For all the government’s hand-wringing about “cancel culture”, they’re doing little about it. A plan to ditch the clause in the legislation that nearly put Kelly behind bars has been scrapped; indeed, in response to a Winston Churchill statue getting defaced in 2020, ministers have introduced a new law to make vandalising monuments punishable by “as much as a decade in jail”. The Tories seem more concerned about protecting freedom of speech among students, but that’s a minor issue: before the pandemic, just 0.2% of events at universities featuring outside speakers were cancelled. The government indulges a “cartoonish” version of the free-speech debate, which “too often boils down to the middle-aged being annoyed with their teenaged children”. On “the far more egregious problem of the state jailing people for expressing an opinion”, they’re silent.