Disheartened by the response from Twitter, many are now calling for employers to be tracked down – whether the account is a personal one or not – and notified of employees bad online behaviour with the hope that they will be reprimanded or sacked.
But this new plan of action is essentially vigilantism, the consequences of which go well beyond one’s online behaviour.
Commentator Julia Baird has called for employers to ‘tighten and clarify Twitter protocols so staff know sending anonymous, obscene, threatening or violent messages would result in strong disciplining, or even sacking.’ How this unfortunate behaviour on Twitter relates to the tweeter’s employer is not clear. It is obvious that if the employee was tweeting as an official and sanctioned voice of the employer these sorts of guidelines would apply, but Baird’s call goes beyond that.
It’s a tenuous stretch for the personal tweets of an employee to be related to an employer and unclear under which circumstances it would be seen as appropriate for workplace discipline to apply to personal activities. In a broader sense personal interactions outside of the workplace are not subject to workplace discipline; indeed it would test unfair dismissal laws if an employee were sanctioned in this way for their personal behaviour.
In the case of a political disagreement it would be even more problematic. If an employer were to take action against an employee for tweets of a political nature the employer may be impinging on the employees freedom to hold political views that are different to the employers, which would clearly be a case of unfair dismissal.
There are already laws in place that cover the offence of making threats online. Threatening and violent messages should be reported to the police. The Telecommunications Offences and Other Measures Act legislates against the issuing of threats over a carriage service. Threats to kill are punishable with 10 years imprisonment while threats to cause serious harm attract 7 years. Harassment, intimidation and causing offence is also punishable. The appropriate way to deal with threats and intimidation online is to report them to the police. They should be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators should be punished to the full extent of the law.
There are concerns that police and law enforcement have not taken threats issued over social media platforms seriously enough. This is a genuine cause for concern. The disregard described in this piece by Eliza Cussen in Women’s Agenda clearly demonstrates that police are not equipped to deal with these situations and are not taking these threats seriously.
Threats and abuse are well beyond robust disagreement and there should be genuine, real-world consequences for behaving illegally online. The laws have been enacted to protect people and they should be followed closely and not selectively enforced. Campaigning in this area should be directed toward calling on police and the judiciary to take reports of these offences far more seriously and active pursuit and prosecution of offenders.
It is the role of the police and the judiciary to investigate and determine if offences under the Telecommunications Offences and Other Measures Act have been committed and to appropriately punish offenders. Our focus should be on demanding strong implementation and protection from the police, not on employers. It is not appropriate for an employer to be pushed into playing the role of investigator, judge and jury at the behest of an aggrieved internet user.
Elly Michelle Clough is a publicist and writer.