Social Media: We Don’t Need New Laws

July 28, 2014

Legislation currently in existence, including the Communications Act 2003 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, along with the guidelines for applying them published by the Director of Public Prosecutions, are enough to ensure that criminal offences committed using social media can be adequately prosecuted, says the House of Lords Communications Committee in its new report, published on 29 July.

However, the Committee is calling for more clarity from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) as to when an indecent communication (e.g. ‘revenge porn’) could – and should – be subject to prosecution under existing powers. It is also encouraging web site operators such as Facebook and Twitter to speed up requests for identification of users from our law enforcement agencies, using powers already granted by Parliament. The Committee is also calling for better statistics on the balance of offences committed online and by traditional means, as well as the number of offences that are actually reported.

Chairman of the Committee, Lord Best, said:

’34 million people in the UK use Facebook. And 15 million in the UK use Twitter, contributing to the 500million Tweets that are sent a day. And although most of these range from the informative to the forgettable, people need to remember that what is criminal off-line is also criminal online. Cyber bullying, revenge porn, trolling and virtual mobbing are new phrases in our media vocabulary, but they generally describe behaviour that is already criminal. 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.

‘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 off-line. 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.

‘We are not, though, saying that the legislation is perfect. The DPP’s guidance is very good but we would like clarification as to when a person who sends an indecent communication could and should be prosecuted.

‘We encourage websites to speed up processing law enforcement requests for identities, to develop further their ability to monitor the use of their services and to build on the effectiveness of measures already in place to enable people using social media platforms to protect themselves.

‘Just as importantly, as well as the legal measures available to us, we must ensure that parents and schools are taking on board the extent of the problem. They need to make sure that children are taught – at home and in school – that being horrid, offensive and rude to people online is just as wrong as it would be to do it face-to-face. Educating the next generation about how they should behave in the technological world is as important as teaching them the rights and wrongs of how to behave in person.’

The Committee’s report, Social Media and Criminal Offences, and transcripts of oral evidence sessions will be available on the Committee’s webpage, from 00.01 Tuesday 29 July 2014.

Note that the Committee’s interest was in criminal offences committed using the social media. They have not considered defamation, online fraud, or children’s use of the internet.