Dusty pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter laws will do for social media crimes

Lords say decades-old legislation is 'fit for purpose'

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Blighty peers have said that the country doesn’t need new laws to cover criminal offences committed on social media, but said public prosecutors need to clarify when revenge porn qualifies for prosecution.

The Lords Communication Committee said in a report that the Communications Act from 2003 and the Harassment Act from 1997 were enough for social media crimes, even though Twitter and Facebook did not exist when they were enacted.

“Cyber bullying, revenge porn, trolling and virtual mobbing are new phrases in our media vocabulary, but they generally describe behaviour that is already criminal,” said Lord Best, the chair of the group.

“We need to be careful: we need to balance people’s right to freedom of expression with implementing the criminal law, whether the offences are committed online or offline. It’s a complex subject, but we feel that legislation as it currently exists is generally fit for purpose and doing the job, even though it was drafted before the social media were first invented.”

However, the government officials did acknowledge that there needed to be some clarity on when online communication crossed the line, particularly in regards to revenge porn.

Two other peers in the House of Lords have already claimed that revenge porn – posting intimate images of others online without their consent – needs its own specific sanctions. Lib Dem Baroness Olly Grender and Lord Jonathan Marks tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill currently making its way through Parliament that would send offenders to jail for up to a year.

In their report, the comms committee said that the clause would add flexibility that would be “desirable”, even though existing laws like the Harassment Act and the Malicious Communications act covered the offence. Under these legislations, offences are triable in the magistrate’s court and guilty parties can get up to six months in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both.

Aside from the amendment, the committee asked the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to add the offence to his guidance for social media prosecutions.

“The committee is calling for more clarity from the DPP as to when an indecent communication (e.g. “revenge porn”) could – and should – be subject to prosecution under existing powers,” the group said.

The Lords also said that sites like Facebook and Twitter should speed up their replies to ID requests from law enforcement and further develop their abuse monitoring and user protection systems.

“Although anonymity has a valuable place when using social media – enabling human rights workers and journalists working in conflict areas to communicate with the outside world, for example – its negative effects when used as a shield for offenders to hide behind should be addressed,” said Lord Best.

Neither Facebook nor Twitter had returned a request for comment at the time of publication. ®

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