In the world of digital and social media, trolling happens on a regular basis. But that doesn't mean the British legal system will sit idly by since the sentencing rate is climbing in recent years.
Internet trolls may find harassment a more difficult task in Britain. According to Sky News and Channel 4 News, trolls face serious punishment for breaking the Communications Act 2003's Section 127, which deals with threatening and harassing behavior.
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Channel 4 reports that 1,209 people were found guilty in 2014, or nearly three per day, compared to 2004's 143. What's changed?
"This was a relatively obscure provision before the internet. You would have been talking about poison telephone calls and there were relatively few of those," says Professor Lilian Edwards from Strathclyde University.
"It is obviously related to what has happened with social media." A rise in social media and the ability to pinpoint someone's entire world with a few clicks means refined harassment techniques.
What constitutes prosecutable harassment? When the crime is committed "by means of a public electronic communications network," like the internet, with written and visual messaging considered "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character."
In other words, the kind of behavior many women on social media closely watch, monitoring any potential threats outside of the norm. Women who express opinions often face numerous threats of sexual and physical violence, such as activist Caroline Criado-Perez, who wanted Jane Austen on the £10 bill.
Clearer guidelines were released when Crown Prosecution Service revised the Act in 2013 after Twitter user Paul Chambers was found guilty for expressing frustration at a local airport. Tweeting to the masses, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your s*** together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"
After High Court rejected the sentencing, the reframing pushed prosecutors to penalize those breaking the law. The Telegraph reports that Ministry of Justice saw an increase of complaints and convictions going against the Malicious Communications Act, which saw over ten times the rate between 2004 (64) and 2014 (694).
The MOJ clarified that of the 1,501 defendants under Section 127, 70 were juveniles and an additional 685 received cautions.
With a maximum fine of £5,000 and up to 6 months in jail, the average 2.2 months is pretty lenient. Conviction and incarceration numbers jumped from 7 in 2004 to over 155 people in 2014. The numbers are not staggering, but do pinpoint the fact social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter cannot ignore what is happening on respective platforms.
Sky also points out that incessant phone calls and email communication may also earn a troll some time and money as well.
While showing an 18 percent increase from 2013 to 2014, the Section 127 statistics show a drop compared to 2012’s 1,423. Edwards points out the Director of Public Prosecutions helped to resolve some of the lesser charges once Chambers was found innocent.
Sir Keir Starmer QC, the 2013 director, pointed out that prosecution still must provide a “high threshold” of evidence before going to court. The professor also notes that by the DPP implementing certain standards to fit the modern era “made prosecutions more carefully considered so that people were not being prosecuted for making jokes.”
And in October, the British government announced plans to increase the maximum serving time from 6 months to 2 years for the Malicious Communications Act. An action that is very important in cases like Criado-Perez or Labour MP Stella Creasy, where the statute of limitations moves from two years to three and forces a strong defense.
However, Edwards reiterates “you have simply got more awareness that this is a serious problem both among the public and the police,” especially on social media sites where many people must professionally network.
For example, Creasy endured a barrage of harassment by Peter Nunn that included messages like "Best way to rape a witch, try and drown her first then just when she's gagging for air that's when you enter." According to The Guardian, all the furor happened by Creasy endorsing Criado-Perez's idea.
Consequences of trolling may not be easy to brush aside for those under British law.
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Sources: Channel 4 News, Sky News, The Telegraph