Law Commission asked to analyse whether and how statutes need to be changed to ensure they are fit for the internet age
The government has launched a review of the laws covering internet trolling and intends to “make sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online”.
Prime minister Theresa May this week announced that the Law Commission has been asked to conduct a review of the current laws relating to online abuse to determine whether they offer sufficient protection for victims of trolling, bullying, or harassment. The findings of this review will be published at some point in the next six months.
Thereafter, if the commission finds that existing laws require improvements or changes to better address malicious internet communications, it will begin exploring “potential options for reform”. This exercise, the commission said, “will be informed by developing government policy in the Government Digital Charter” – a document published last week that formalises the government’s ambition to make the UK the safest place in the world to be an internet user.
This project, which will include public consultation, is anticipated to take a further six months. Following its conclusion, the Law Commission will make recommendations to the government.
Law Commissioner Professor David Ormerod QC said: “There are laws in place to stop abuse, but we’ve moved on from the age of green ink and poison pens. The digital world throws up new questions and we need to make sure that the law is robust and flexible enough to answer them. If we are to be safe, both on- and offline, the criminal law must offer appropriate protection in both spaces.”
The laws that will be examined by the commission include the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003. Also under scrutiny will be the legal definition of the term ‘grossly offensive’, and whether such a definition “poses difficulties in legal certainty”. The review will also consider whether the development of internet technologies has made the definitions of some other terms – ‘sender’, for example – “obsolete or confused”.
- Government to ramp up social-media skills in bid to ‘tackle false information’ online
- Police chiefs and crime commissioners pledge digital policing reforms
- Attorney general to examine risks of ‘trial by social media’
Another area to be analysed is “whether the law means you need to prove fault or prove intention to prosecute offensive online communications”, the commission said. The review will also look at where other areas of legislation overlap with communications statutes.
The review of trolling laws came as part of a swathe of internet-safety measures announced by the government this week, including the publication of an online safety guide designed for use by teachers and other professionals who work with children.
The firms that run social-media platforms will also come under the spotlight in the coming months, resulting in the upcoming publication of a government code of practice “setting out clearly the minimum expectations on social media companies”.
Culture secretary Matt Hancock also said that the government has secured commitments from the likes of Google, Facebook, and Twitter that they will work to ensure that future election campaigns are kept as free from abuse as possible. This will include monitoring offensive content and removing it as soon as possible, as well as helping candidates with their online-safety measures.
Hancock added: “Not only are we seeing if the law needs updating to better tackle online harms, we are moving forward with our plans for online platforms to have tailored protections in place – giving the UK public standards of internet safety unparalleled anywhere else in the world.”