The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) created Social Media Guidelines in 2012 for prosecutors in England and Wales. Since then, cyber-abuse become even more prevalent and entirely new crimes have emerged online. Recognising the harm caused by online abuse, the CPS is currently updating the Social Media Guidelines so that internet trolls could face criminal prosecution for behaviour that previously went unpunished. A 10-week public consultation is under way to get the revisions to the guidelines correct.
Last year the CPS released the Violence against Women and Girls (VaWG) Annual Report. They found that the use of the internet as a tool for abuse had increased in cases of violence against women and recognised that social media was being used in harassment, stalking, blackmail, and grooming. The increase in cases involving social media is one of the reasons the guidelines are being rewritten. The other is that there are entirely new crimes that prosecutors need to start taking seriously.
In a statement Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, described the importance of addressing the newly emerging methods of abuse online. “It is vital that prosecutors consider the bigger picture when looking at evidence and examine both the online and offline behaviour pattern of the defendant. Online abuse is cowardly and can be deeply upsetting to the individual.”
The CPS is acknowledging that online behaviour can constitute a real threat and that the current laws should be redesigned to account for new forms of abuse. The emerging crimes that the guidelines will address include revenge porn and using spyware on ex-partners. The guidelines will also address the use of fake profiles used to impersonate other people and post defamatory content. This will likely be a grey area for prosecutors as it already is for social media companies. Twitter will suspend imposter accounts but allows parody accounts. As you can imagine, plenty of abusive trolls claim their efforts were nothing but a parody.
How prosecutors use these guidelines remains to be seen. Some abusive trolls will claim they were exercising their freedom of speech. Some will be very young and claim they didn’t understand the consequences. There will always be a grey area for the prosecutors but it’s a step in the right direction if they pay more attention to online abuse during cases. The law needs to keep up with technology.
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