Back in the dark days of the “2011 Riots”, there was significant public protestation regarding the sentences given to two men convicted of inciting others to riot, using Facebook. This may have been the point where the extent to which activity on a computer “matters” in the physical world seeped into the public consciousness. People can be convicted of computer based offences, without being the geeky cartoon hacker that fills the imagination.

Each Facebook rioter were handed 4 year custodial sentences at Chester Crown Court and people are rightly asking for the basis of what, on the face of it, appears a rather harsh sentence for little more than bravado on the internet.

However, it is worth considering the facts that we know and the established law to get a greater understanding of the basis of those sentences.

Jordan Blackshawposted an “event” on Facebook called ‘Smash Down’. This was to take place in Northwich town on 8th August. When Blackshaw attended, the only people present were police officers, who promptly arrested him.

Perry Sutcliffe-Keenanput details on Facebook of an event for the 9th August, which he called ‘The Warrington Riots’. The following morning, he awoke with a hangover and regret and duly deleted the information from Facebook. No disturbances occurred as a result of this post either. He was nevertheless arrested for his actions.

On that information alone, there would clearly be outrage. “Nothing happened!?” “It’s a waste of police resources!?” “4 years!!?!”

However, these actions must be considered in context. On 4th August, Mark Duggan was shot dead in London. 2 days later, people gathered in Tottenham for a peaceful protest. Eventually, the police become the focus of their anger and violence quickly spread. That appeared to be the spark for what later happened around the country. On 7th August, rioting inLondon continued and widespread media coverage began to cause panic throughout our major cities. It was at this point that it appears that Blackshaw posted about the Northwich ‘Smash Down’.

On 8th August, police, presumably on stand-by for serious disturbances, were waiting for Blackshaw and arrested him. When the officers attended, it must have been thought that something could happen. Blackshaw must have thought something would occur – he came to watch!

The following day, with rioting in Salford,Manchester,BirminghamandLiverpool, Sutcliffe-Keenan posted about ‘The Warrington Riots’. Members of the public saw this, panicked and phoned the police. Police resources, already strained to breaking point, were then assigned to theWarringtonmatter.

The amount of harm caused across that time period was extremely high – not only the significant financial cost but also the damage to the public perception and trust of the community, police, judiciary and Government.

The riot offence itself is one that would attract a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. Needless to say, it is a very serious offence. However, the encouraging or assisting of an offence believing that it will be committed also attracts that sentence. In this regard, the law does not differentiate between those who incite an offence and those who actually carry it out.

To be guilty of this offence, each of the pair must:

  1. Have done an act capable of encouraging the commission of a riot; and
  2. 2. Have believed that:

(a) a riot offence would be committed; and

(b) that their acts would encourage the commission of a riot offence.

The necessary intent was there – they both pleaded guilty and they are each on public record as stating that they intended to incite a riot.

With that in mind, at 4 years imprisonment they each got significantly less than the maximum potential sentence. But, as we now know, there was no riot. No physical damage was caused whatsoever. Of course, it is not as simple as that – police resources were diverted away from what must have been the biggest strain on their resources in recent times and the public mood was near hysteria.

When the pair committed the offences, they had no idea that it would come to nothing. That is the point. At the time of the commission of the offence, they intended that their actions would incite a riot. The 4 year custodial sentences are evidently deterrent sentences given in the context of the terrible events across that time period.

As an expert in cyber-crime, I was asked whether this is an area of new law based on the growing use of technology. Simply put, it is not. That this pair used Facebook as the method of distribution does not render this a space-age offence at the cutting edge of technology. This offence is akin to a person printing 400 leaflets inviting people to a riot and posting them through letterboxes. The difference is the ease of the commission of this Facebook incitement. Anybody can post such a message and immediately distribute it to, effectively, people spread across the world. Provided you have the means to access the internet, you are capable of a vast array of offences that you would not otherwise have been able to commit as easily.

It is clear that the police, and allegedly MI5, are able to access aspects of social networking by way of Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger.

It is very easy to place something on the internet which, in hindsight, you wish that you had not. For most, this is restricted to embarrassing photos from a night out or unwise comments about your boss, but for some their actions constitute a criminal offence. It must be borne in mind that what is placed on the internet can never truly be entirely deleted. This is a dangerous medium in that regard and one that people should be more cautious about.

Act in haste, repent at leisure.