Paul Chambers, PhonepayPlus, and Perverse Interpretations of the Law

.... specifically the 2003 Communications Act

If you follow the Excellent @JackofKent on Twitter, you will be aware that a man called "Paul Chambers" (@pauljchambers) has just been prosecuted for sending a tweet which read

"Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"

Read the full story here and here (as provided by legal blogger JackofKent) or read one of the inaccurate accounts published by the mainstream media eg here (provided by paid journalists).

Now, unlike @JackofKent, I pretend no legal expertise, but I gather that the authorities originally wanted to try Paul Chambers under legislation designed for dealing with bomb hoaxers. Now while Paul Chambers's tweet may have been in poor taste, he clearly did not intend to threaten anyone or cause them to believe he really had a bomb. Nor did anyone at Robin Hood Airport understand Paul's tweet as a serious threat or even a hoax threat. These facts seemed to rule out a prosecution under the 1977 Criminal Law Act (which actually covers bomb hoaxes) so the authorities (not to be thwarted in their attempts to serve the public interest) decided instead to prosecute Paul under the 2003 Communications Act - designed to provide powers to the regulator body "Ofcom" and thus protect the public from suffering at the hands of unscrupulous people engaged the provision of electronic communications networks and services.

Funnily enough, this is by no means the first time that perverse interpretations have been put on this act in order to achieve ends which would seem to me (as a legally naive observer) to be the exact opposite of what those who drew up this act would seem to have intended.

A few years ago tens of thousands of people across the country suddenly discovered that they were running up huge phone bills. The problem, it transpired, was rogue software that was dialling up premium rate telephone numbers (this was before the mass adoption of broadband). Meanwhile, BT blithely continued collecting money from scammed customers and passing it on to the organized criminals who were operating the premium-rate numbers and distributing the malware which rang the numbers. You can read the full story here (bbc) and here (financial-crime fighter Jeffrey Robinson).

Faced with this huge scam, the body which was supposed to be regulating this industry "PhonepayPlus" (then called "ICSTIS") whose "helplines" were "in meltdown" did absolutely nothing for about eighteen months. It finally introduced a scheme whereby firms wishing to run legitimate dialler "services" had to seek prior permission from ICTIS. Strangely, for an industry which PhonepayPlus repeatedly insists is "99% honest", exactly zero honest dialler services emerged from the new prior permissions regime.

But to return to the point of this post, PhonepayPlus has its powers delegated to it by Ofcom and is, by virtue of that fact, the body responsible for implementing the 2003 Act - insofar as that act relates to the premium rate industry. Here's what the Chair of PhonepayPlus Sir Alistair Graham (always ready to criticize MPs accused of dishonesty) had to say about the 2003 Communications act and the rogue dialler fiasco:

The investigation undertaken by ICSTIS at the time was quite lengthy due to the complex nature of the technologies involved. In the interim not withstanding the existence of complaints, BT and other Network Operators were obliged to allow them to continue operating. This obligation is set out in the Communications Act 2003.
[letter to Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE MP, Minister of State for Industry and the Regions September 2006]

So, according to the body charged with regulating the premium rate industry by administering the 2003 Communications Act, that act does not protect the public from the scammers, it protects the scammers from the public. Of course Sir Alistair Graham may have got the wrong end of the stick here (I strongly suspect he has) but since he is responsible for administering this act, he (I suppose) has the final say on how the act is to be used.

Sadly, rogue diallers are not the only example of PhonepayPlus's failure to regulate the premium rate industry. Anyone who has your mobile number (ie has illegally bought a list of real numbers or has simply generated a block of random numbers) can send you an unsolicited reverse charge premium rate text message and your network will charge you for it - again blithely handing the proceeds on to the scammers. PhonepayPlus insists that the onus is on the "customer" to prove he or she did not request the text (something that PhonepayPlus acknowledge would be virtually impossible) and refuse point-blank to force the networks to allow consumers to opt out of these "services".

So we now know that the 2003 Communications Act does not protect consumers against rogue diallers. Does it protect us against unsolicited reverse charge SMS? The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE MP, Minister of State for Industry and the Regions certainly thinks it does. But she's wrong! According to PhonepayPlus, unsolicited texts are only illegal under the 2003 Act if they are (normally free) "promotional" texts - unsolicited reverse charge "services" (typically jokes and tarot card "readings") are merely "misleading".

But fear not. Let no one say that the "Law is an ass" (to quote Dickens) or that "when I use a law it means what I want it to mean" (to mis-quote Carroll). The 2003 Communications Act may not protect the public against premium rate crime, but it can be use to prosecute people who make poor jokes on Twitter.

I'm sure we can all sleep soundly in our beds tonight knowing that!

PS Much better MSM article from @SamiraAhmedC4 now at: Man fined for Twitter airport 'bomb threat'


On the Paul Chambers front, there is an appeal on 2010 September 24 _ I'll post the result.

On the premium rate front, PhonepayPlus have written to me to confirm that not only does the 2003 Communications Act (under which Paul was prosecuted) oblige them to allow rogue diallers and forbid PP+ from declaring the activities of unsolicited reverse charge SMS spammers to be "illegal", the 2003 Communications Act actually prevents PhonepayPlus and Ofcom from mandating the networks to allow their customers to opt out of premium rate "services" - even if the customers are minors. It would be interesting to learn which clauses of the Act PP+ rely on when they make these extraordinary claims. I may ask them.


  1. PS: Somewhay ironically my word verification was 'diali' LOL!

  2. It's a travesty isn't it?


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