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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

UK laws to curb online abuse are out of date and unclear: report

The Law Commission report asks Government to consider reviewing legislation which covers online abuse and harassment.

The Law Commission made seven recommendations for updating the UK's laws to beat online abuse. Photothek
The Law Commission made seven recommendations for updating the UK's laws to beat online abuse. Photothek

Laws governing online behaviour and protecting the public from abuse in England and Wales need to be updated, a report has concluded.

The Law Commission, a independent body which reviews law in England and Wales, investigated the legal framework around the online world, finding the country’s laws had failed to catch up with the fast pace of technological developments in online communication.

Among the issues with the current state of affairs are overlapping laws, the language of legislation causing confusion and a lack of laws specifically designed to deal with online offences.

“At the most extreme end of the spectrum, online abuse can drive individuals to self-harm and suicide. More commonly, it can cause or contribute to psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety, and lead people to withdraw from social, professional and public life,” the report reads.

“Certain forms of communication, such as hate speech, can also have a more broadly damaging impact on society, contributing to the marginalisation of communities, and entrenching fear and discrimination.”

Only 3 per cent of recorded malicious communications offences are prosecuted in the UK, according to Home Office figures, suggesting that changes to the law could go a long way to curb bad behaviour online.

The British police currently uses a mish-mash of of laws from as early as 1861 and as recent as 2003 to prosecute harassment and threats made online. This means that although most offenses are broadly covered, the British legal system can be wildly unfit for purpose in internet-specific cases of abuse, such ‘as ‘pile ons’ where a victim is sent abusive messages from many people, or ‘doxxing’, when victim’s address or phone number is distributed online.

One of the women interviewed for the report, who was persistently called a “f***ing bitch” by strangers online 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.”

The report, which was commissioned by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, suggests a way to tackle and discourage this behaviour may be to charge offenders for inciting or directing a ‘pile on’.

In cases which current law does cover, the report says there are practical and cultural constraints stopping prosecution of individuals committing offenses, including the sheer scale of online communications (both geographically and in number) and a wider culture seemingly ambivalent to online abuse.

The report also called into question the idea that online abuse can be put to an end simply by ‘logging off’. “Such arguments ... fail to appreciate the centrality of the online environment to contemporary personal and professional life,” it concluded.

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Katie Ghose, chief executive of charity Women’s Aid, agreed, saying, “online abuse has a devastating impact on survivors and makes them feel as though the abuse is inescapable.

“Online abuse does not happen in the ‘virtual world’ in isolation; 85 per cent of survivors surveyed by Women’s Aid experienced a pattern of online abuse together with offline abuse. Yet too often it is not taken as seriously as abuse ‘in the real world’.

The Commission made a series of recommendations for improvement, involving reforming the language used in defining offences and considering new legislation to keep up with the changing online landscape.