The new laws for internet trolls and abusers would seek to address the proliferation of a multitude of cybercrimes, which have previously gone overlooked to the detriment of many.
Broader offences, such as “pile on” harassment that targets an individual and more specific attacks will be brought into focus.
These include sending false or threatening communications and cyberflashing – aka, sending unsolicited sexual imagery – along with seeking to reinforce the powers of regulatory bodies to tackle issues such as the glorification of self-harm.
The proposal of the new legislation comes off the back of growing concern at the sheer volume of offences – from the headline-hitting racial abuse of footballers to wider, racially-motivated attacks suffered by millions of others.
The recommendations are expected to be backed by the government as the Law Commission reported that more than 70% of adults now have a social media profile and one third say they have been exposed to online abuse.
Caroline Dinenage, the Westminster culture minister, said the UK Government would “carefully consider” the proposals as they seek to update legislation that hasn’t kept pace with the explosive rate at which internet use has increased.
“We are putting new legal responsibilities on social media companies to protect the British public. But we have to be confident we can hold the individuals using these sites to threaten, abuse and spread hate accountable too,” she said.
As well as proposing new laws, the Commission took current legislation to task, saying that terms such as “grossly offensive” and “indecent” are subjectively broad in application, thus setting the bar of criminality too low and simultaneously making something like consensual sexting between adults an offence.
At the same, pile on harassment could evade prosecution despite being genuinely harmful and distressing due to ineffectual wording and application of the current laws.
“The result is that the law as it currently stands over-criminalises in some situations and under-criminalises in others,” said the Commission.
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A new offence proposed by the Commission would be based around the concept of ‘likely psychological harm’. For this, prosecutors would have to show a perpetrator intended to cause harm and had no reasonable excuse for the abusive communication.
The caveat of ‘reasonable excuse’ is there so as to not dissuade discourse on matters of public interest. This also means that media articles would be exempt from this law.
The ‘likely psychological harm’ offence would be intended as a best-practice catch-all (or most) for trolling and pile on harassment, carrying a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
Cyberflashing would be included in the Sex Offences Act 2003, amended to include the ‘sending of images or video recordings of genitalia’. It would carry a maximum of two years’ jail time.
Updating the law to account for offences that include glorifying self-harm will enable the regulator, Ofcom, to force social media firms to take down such posts and fine them if they fail to do so.
However, it will also become a specific offence for those who “target intentional encouragement or assistance of self-harm at a high threshold (equivalent to grievous bodily harm),” said the Commission. It could carry a sentence of up to 14 years in jail.
Knowingly sending false communications crosses the line into the wrong side of the law if it can be shown to cause “non-trivial, emotional, psychological or physical harm”. Threatening communications would cover “serious harm” such as serious injuries like grievous bodily harm, rape, or significant financial loss.
Prof Penney Lewis, a Criminal Law Commissioner, said the reforms aim to focus on the harmful consequences of online abuse: “Online abuse can cause untold harm to those targeted and change is needed to ensure we are protecting victims from abuse such as cyberflashing and pile-on harassment,” she said.