Today, the law commission has published new recommendations to address harm online through protecting victims of online abuse as well as aiming to protect freedom of expression. These new recommendations have been put forward as a result of previous laws that govern online abuse being ineffective against common types of harm online, often over criminalising certain situations and under criminalising others whilst relying on ‘vague’ terms to determine the severity of the situation.
A Time for Change
It was found that ‘More than 70% of UK adults have a social media profile and internet users spend over four hours online each day on average.’ A report from the Alan Turing Institute also discovered that one third of people in the UK had been exposed to online harm. Statistics such as these prompted a review of communication offences to see if they could be modernised and actually tackle current harms that are posing consistent threat to victims online. This also would ensure that the law was clearer and there were consistent definitions around criminal behaviour whilst ensuring that ‘freedom of expression’ was protected. You can read the law commission report here.
Minister for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage said:
"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.
I thank the Law Commission for its detailed recommendations which we will carefully consider as we update our laws for the digital age, protecting freedom of speech while making sure what is unacceptable offline is unacceptable online."
New Recommendations and Offences
The new recommendations look to act towards the potential psychological effects it can have towards the victim as opposed to the communication itself. It was recommended that content could be criminalised if
- Someone sends or posts something online that is likely to cause harm to a likely audience.
- Someone intends to cause harm to a likely audience.
- Someone sends or posts something without reasonable excuse.
This new offence could also address pile-on harassment – when a number of different individuals send harassing content to a certain victim.
The new offences that have been brought forward to recommend include:
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 amended to include the sending of images or video recordings of genitals.To recognise the violation of a victim’s sexual autonomy without their consent, the offence would require either that the defendant intends to cause alarm, distress or humiliation, or if the defendant is acting for a sexual purpose, the defendant is reckless as to whether the victim is caused alarm, distress or humiliation.
Encouragement or glorification of serious self-harm
An offence to target intentional encouragement or assistance of self-harm at a high threshold (equivalent to grievous bodily harm). The change would ensure that the offence targets the most serious encouragement or assistance of self-harm without unduly criminalising vulnerable people.
Sending flashing images with intent to induce a seizure
A specific offence for sending flashing images to people with epilepsy with the intention of inducing seizures.
Knowingly false communications
A defendant would be liable if they knowingly send or post a communication that they know to be false and they intend to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological, or physical harm to the likely audience, without a reasonable excuse. This would raise the threshold for the offence currently in the Communications Act 2003, from knowingly causing “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety” to causing harm.
A specific offence targeting communications that contain threats of serious harm. It would be an offence where the defendant intends the victim to fear the threat will be carried out or the defendant is reckless as to whether the victim fears that the threat will be carried out. The offence defines “serious harm” as including serious injury (equivalent to grievous bodily harm in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861), rape and serious financial harm.
Kathryn Tremlett (Harmful Content Manager at SWGfL) said:
‘SWGfL’s helplines welcome the recommendations made today acknowledging that no one should have to suffer harmful content online. When it comes to communications offences online, the boundaries are often blurred which has led to certain types of online harm and abuse to continue for far too long. We hope that government will implement reforms as soon as possible, simultaneously encouraging adequate training for law enforcement in order to help ensure better access to criminal justice for victims.’
Report Harmful Content, as part of the UK Safer Internet Centre helps to protect victims from harmful content online. If you have experienced or witnessed harmful content online, find out how to report this at: