To observe Hate Crime Awareness Week, the U.K.’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is cracking down on internet bullies and trolls. Actions such as posting humiliating photoshopped images of people on social media platforms, creating derogatory hashtags and doxing can get cyber bullies prosecuted.
CPS published new social media guidelines to help prosecutors determine which online actions are illegal. The guidelines take aim at doxing, inciting virtual mobbing—encouraging others to participate in online harassment—and fake social media profiles used for online abuse to name but a few.
Retweeting something the CPS considers “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false” can also land a person in legal hot water. Yet Alison Saunders, CPS director of public prosecutions, stressed to the BBC that prosecutors can’t use the guidelines to “stifle free speech.” People in the U.K. better check out what actions are now illegal, since saying you didn’t know it was illegal just won’t cut it.
“Social media can be used to educate, entertain and enlighten, but there are also people who use it to bully, intimidate and harass,” Saunders said in the CPS news release. “Ignorance is not a defense, and perceived anonymity is not an escape. Those who commit these acts, or encourage others to do the same, can and will be prosecuted.”
4 categories of offenses for communications sent via social media
There are four categories of offense types for prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media.
Threats of violence to a person or damage to property falls under category 1.
Stalking, harassment and disclosing private sexual images without consent are some of the communications which fall into category 2. It also includes people in intimate or family relationships trying to control each other’s behavior. This category doesn’t just apply to an ex-partner engaging in revenge porn; the revenge porn offense “will cover anyone who re-tweets or forwards without consent.” However, “anyone who sends the message only because he or she thought it was funny would not be committing the offense.”
Category 3 involves communications that “amount to a breach of a court order.”
Category 4 offenses include grossly offensive communications that don’t fit into any of the other categories. These communications would likely be prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act or section 127 of the Communications Act.
Regarding the latter, it is an offense “to send or cause to be sent a false message ‘for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.’” Hopefully people won’t take offense at things that were not meant to annoy, since “the offense is committed by sending the message. There is no requirement that any person sees the message or be offended by it.”
The test of deciding what is grossly offense comes down to “whether a message is couched in terms liable to cause gross offense to those to whom it relates.” Other factors are mentioned as well, such as determining if the language in the message is “beyond the pale of what is tolerable in our society.”
“The internet's not an anonymous place where people can post without any consequences,” Saunders told the BBC. “If you are grossly abusive to people, if you are bullying or harassing people online, then we will prosecute in the same way as if you did it offline.”