Blogger acquitted in UK obscenity case

A case that could have redefined what UK citizens are allowed to post on the Internet ended yesterday after the prosecution failed to bring supporting evidence.

British blogger and civil servant Darryn Walker, who wrote an erotic story about the kidnapping, rape and murder of popular girl band Girls Aloud and published it online, has been cleared of obscenity charges. The Internet Watch Foundation, a UK organization that allows citizens to report illegal online content, learned of the story and brought it to the police in early 2008.

Walker was arrested and charged with violating the Obscene Publications Act 1959 — most famously used in 1960 to prosecute DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover (publisher Penguin Books was found not guilty).

The prosecution argued that "the article in question, which was posted on the internet, was accessible to people who were particularly vulnerable - young people who were interested in a particular pop music group. It was this that distinguished this case from other material available on the internet."

However, the prosecution announced on Monday that they would provide no evidence that young fans searching for information on Girl Aloud would easily stumble upon the story, and Walker was acquitted.

Had Judge Esmond Faulks returned a guilty verdict, the case would have had far-reaching implications for writers and publishers of online content. John Ozimek of The Register writes, "a successful prosecution would have overturned a 30-year presumption against prosecuting authors for purely written material." The Obscenity Publications Act has not been used to prosecute written content since 1976; some argue that it is so outdated that it should be abolished.

Despite the acquittal, the case has still raised questions regarding public policy and freedom of speech. The case was never referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), who handles prosecutions related to possession of materials banned by the UK's "extreme porn law." British lawyers are calling for a review of this procedure, demanding that cases involving publication and distribution also go before the DPP.

The case also highlighted the failure of the prosecution to understand the nature of Google — though the charges against Walker were based on the assumption that his story would be easily found by young fans of Girls Aloud, before the trial the story was buried beneath thousands of more legitimate, less adult-themed search results. But the publicity generated by the trial has bumped Walker's story closer to the top, making the chance that someone looking for concert tickets or a tour schedule will accidentally stumble upon it even more likely.