Internet trolls could face two years in jail under new laws. But how does the British legal system currently police online abuse, asks Tom de Castella.
The sending of rape threats to Chloe Madeley is the latest disturbing case of trolling. Now the government says it will act to put trolls in jail for two years.
Nick McAleenan, a media lawyer at JMW Solicitors, says there are three main ways that trolls are prosecuted at the moment.
In England and Wales, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 covers comments that cause "distress or anxiety". Similar legislation applies in Northern Ireland. Sean Duffy was jailed under the act for 18 weeks in 2011 after he made "grossly offensive" comments about children who had killed themselves. Then there's the Communications Act 2003 which applies across the United Kingdom. It covers threats but often overlaps with the 1988 act, McAleenan says. It was used to jail a man who posted offensive messages aimed at the families of Jade Goody and John Paul Massey, a Liverpool boy mauled to death by a dog.
The third Act is the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which deals with stalking both on and offline. It applies in England and Wales, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have similar legislation. It can be pursued in both civil and criminal courts. It might have been used to prosecute Brenda Leyland, who killed herself after she was revealed to have sent up to 50 tweets a day about the parents of Madeleine McCann. It might be argued that what she did could also have been prosecuted under libel law.
The police are often reluctant to get directly involved in online stalking, McAleenan says. But recently there has been a rise in the police issuing warnings - known as a Police Information Notice - to suspected trolls.
Critics sometimes question the balance between enforcement and the right to free speech. It can be a fine line. When someone on Twitter accused Tom Daley of letting down his dead father by not winning gold at the London Olympics, the police made an arrest, apparently under the 1988 act. And the 2003 act was used to convict a man who made a joke about blowing up Robin Hood airport in 2010. It was later quashed after a campaign backed by comedians. McAleenan believes the current laws are sufficient. The problem is a lack of resources, and the need for further education of the public and police about what constitutes an offence.
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