Webwatch: Law Commission call for tougher laws to tackle online abuse

Tougher laws are needed to protect victims of online and social media-based abuse, a report by the Law Commission has said.

The study, commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), found a “lack of coherence” in the current criminal law as it fails to keep pace with a rapidly-changing digital world.

Particular concerns are raised about the adequacy of existing laws in addressing behaviour such as “pile on” harassment, or campaigns of harassment by a group.

The report highlights one victim receiving repetitive, abusive messages, who said: “Maybe one-off it doesn’t matter, but when you have 500 coming into your inbox, 500 people saying it, maybe you don’t think that.”

Current harassment offences are mostly targeted at repetitive conduct by one person against another person or group – but multiple people committing single acts of abuse against a person could also constitute harassment, the report says.

It notes: “In practice, it appears that the criminal law is having little effect in punishing and deterring certain forms of group abuse.”

Questions are also raised over the ability of the law to deal with victims who find their private sexual images and other personal information widely spread online.

And the study found that not all harmful online conduct is pursued by law enforcement to the same extent as it might be in an offline context.

One contributor to the consultation said: “Online abuse is like domestic violence in the 1980s. People used to say it was just something that happened.

“Police didn’t step in on disputes between a husband and wife. But every part of society changed when prosecutions started being brought.”

Professor David Ormerod QC, law commissioner for criminal law, said online abuse had “become commonplace for many” with the rise of the internet and social media.

“Our report highlights the ways in which the criminal law is not keeping pace with these technological changes,” he said.

“We identify the areas of the criminal law most in need of reform in order to protect victims and hold perpetrators to account.”

Responding to the report, digital minister Margot James said: “Behaviour that is illegal offline should be treated the same when it’s committed online. We’ve listened to victims of online abuse as it’s important that the right legal protections are in place to meet the challenges of new technology.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Victoria Jones / PA Wire.