McCrea’s radical social media changes blocked

Basil McCrea in 2014
Basil McCrea in 2014

An attempt at far-reaching legal changes which would have significantly changed the nature of online debate in Northern Ireland have been blocked before ever getting to the floor of the Assembly.

As revealed by the News Letter yesterday, Basil McCrea had been attempting to make it an imprisonable offence for someone to intentionally cause “alarm” by sending messages which a reasonable person would judge to be “grossly offensive”.

Mr McCrea’s proposal to change the law would also have compelled every website which “provides an online platform for people to post any public content” to “maintain a full record of a person’s identity and to establish any linked accounts”.

The NI21 leader’s amendment to the Justice (No. 2) Bill had been tabled without any press release to announce what would be a significant legislative change.

However, yesterday it emerged that the Speaker has not chosen Mr McCrea’s amendment for debate, meaning that it now cannot now come before MLAs next week.

The News Letter attempted to speak to Mr McCrea about the issue on Thursday but he did not return our messages.

We phoned the high profile MLA again yesterday and he again failed to reply to questions about the issue.

However, Mr McCrea did discuss the issue – seemingly for the first time – in an online video posted just hours after this newspaper first contacted him about the issue.

In it, he expressed incredulity that his “genuinely good piece of legislation” had been blocked. Mr McCrea said in the video: “I don’t know why the cyber-bullying [amendment] was blocked - I mean, like, everybody would have been supporting it.”

He said that he had wanted to put “more pressure on Twitter and Facebook to reveal the anonymous trolls”.

Mr McCrea’s proposals would have allowed a court – even if it acquitted an individual – to order that the material be deleted and an apology issued.

An Assembly spokeswoman said: “The Speaker selects the amendments to legislation which will be debated in line with Standing Orders and the procedural criteria.

“As the Speaker’s ruling is final and his authority is not open to challenge, the Speaker by parliamentary convention does not give reasons for his procedural decisions.”

There were 100 amendments to the Justice (No. 2) Bill, most of which have been selected for debate.

For that reason, there will be a special third sitting day for the Assembly next week to debate that bill and numerous other pieces of legislation which the Executive is seeking to pass before dissolution next month.