Justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has backed plans for more severe legislation to tackle cyber-bullies. These bullies, also referred to as “trolls”, could now face up to two years in prison.
However, some show concern over the severity of the proposed amendment and fear that increased social media prosecutions could threaten free speech in the UK.
Emma Carr, Deputy Director of the Big Brother Watch told the JusticeGap:
‘I think there’s definitely the threat that these new amendments, and potentially laws, could stifle freedom of speech online. I think the very basis is that we shouldn’t be treating our communications online any different than we treat them in our everyday life – on the street, in the classroom, or in a pub. I think trying to differentiate between our online and offline presences is very dangerous territory and we still need to maintain that sense of proportion when we’re looking at what is a crime and what isn’t.’
In relation to the length of the proposed prison sentences, Carr said that although the length of the sentence depends on the crime, it also depends on whether we would look at the individual’s action as being a criminal act if it were done offline compared to online.
‘If somebody makes an offensive comment, in the street or in a classroom, would you arrest that person and would that lead to a prosecution? If it isn’t the case then why should that be the case if the communication is made online? I think that sense of proportion really does need to be maintained.’
Emma Carr, Deputy Director of the Big Brother Watch.
The Guardian reported that the amendment to the criminal justice bill was proposed by Conservative MP for Ealing Central and Acton, Angie Bray, after a constituent said her 14-year-old daughter had been “verbally raped” by an older man who had sent her 2,000 texts over an 18-month period – to which prosecutors failed to secure a conviction.
Offences under the Malicious Communications Act can only be tried at magistrates’ courts, resulting in a prison sentence no longer than six months for those convicted. However, Bray’s plan would give magistrates the ability to send these cases for trial at Crown Court, where the jail term given could be four times longer. The change would give prosecutors more time to build a case following incidents in which mobiles or websites such as Twitter and Facebook were used for abuse.
Bray told the Evening Standard: ‘Most of us are absolutely appalled by some of the dreadful things abusers say on social networking sites.’
‘It’s got to the point were some people are literally hounded to death. There must be a way to ensure that when bullying gets to this level the law reflects how serious it is.’
The Evening Standard also reported that Chris Grayling, has backed Bray’s demands for changes to the law. ‘We’ve got rules in place to stop people being harassed or distressed by any particular means of communication,’ Grayling said. ‘Now we’re just making sure that those rules are as robust as possible.’
Two abusers of the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez were jailed in January for subjecting her to threats of violence and rape on Twitter after Criado-Perez launched a campaign for more women to be represented on banknotes. On the Justice Gap, Rupinder Bains, managing partner of defamation law experts Bains Cohen, called for training and resources for the police to bring justice to the victims of online harassment. ‘The anonymity of the web is handicapping justice; lack of funding is handicapping justice, as is a lack of knowledge,’ Bains said. ‘If a victim happens to be a celebrity, a sportsperson or an MP, it is surprising how the police are able to obtain the poster’s details and prosecutions are commenced.’ The lawyer argued that whilst the police were prepared to respond to celebrities who had been on the receiving end of abusive online campaigns, they weren’t interested in ordinary people.
Bracken is police and crime reporter for Winchester News Online and student at the University of Winchester