The government's chief law officers will be able to contact Twitter, Facebook and Google directly to get potentially unlawful or contemptuous posts taken down quickly, it has emerged.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons justice select committee today, solicitor general Robert Buckland QC said social media companies have agreed to provide a named person whom the Attorney General's Office can contact to make an 'observation or complaint and to get particular items taken down as quickly as possible'.
The solicitor general met the companies last year as part of his department's inquiry into social media's impact on the criminal justice system. The government's response to a call for evidence was published last month.
Buckland was unable to tells MPs how effective the 'fairly new' system has been, but he will monitor it closely over the next few months to ensure there is a 'step change' in behaviour. He said he did not just want a named person, but someone with whom the AGO can build up a rapport, who knows the system, and who knows what to expect when the AGO calls or complains about a particular 'concerning' post.
Buckland told the committee that the call for evidence 'happily' showed that the court process was not systemically being undermined by contemptuous social media posts. 'But it is something, if unchecked, which could quite easily grow,' he warned.
'If we allow proliferation of inappropriate comments and postings on social media websites to grow with impunity, we will be facing a situation where the integrity of the trial process could be undermined.'
Some of the contemptuous comments are inadvertent, said Buckland, who has reviewed cases in which the commenter was often unaware that they were doing something wrong. 'However, having said that, it's pretty common knowledge among the general population that saying and doing things, and casting judgement about the merits of a case whilst it is ongoing, is not a very sensible thing to do. That's something that's generally understood.
'However, there's more work that we can all do to help spread that knowledge, and also to help, frankly, social media sites understand that when something is inappropriate it needs to be taken down very, very quickly if we are to maintain the integrity of the process.'