The Crown Prosection Service, or CPS, has unveiled guidelines on how law makers should approach policing social networks. The guidance makes a distinction between offensive messages and those that are malicious, making social media as close to spoken conversation in the eyes of the law as it is to written media. See all: PC Advisor software downloads.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Kier Starmer, has announced guidelines that clarify the law with regard to messages posted on social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook. The new Crown Prosection Service guidance is intended to reduce the number of prosecutions arising from offensive social networking posts, following recent high-profile incidents such as the man who was arrested for posting a film on Facebook of himself burning a symbollic poppy.

In announcing the guidelines Starmer said that Twitter and Facebook posts that are merely offensive will not be treated as criminal acts. Instead the CPS should focus on credible threats of violence, malicious messages, and messages that breach existing court orders. This should have prevented the prosection of accountant Paul Chambers, who was pursued through criminal and appeal courts for more than two years for joking about blowing up Doncaster airport. His 'threat' was clearly not credible - although even under these guidelines it would have required the local police and prosecutors to have appreciated that.

Announcing the guidelines, Mr Starmer said: "These interim guidelines are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law.

"The interim guidelines thus protect the individual from threats or targeted harassment while protecting the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it."