New laws governing the use of social media platforms, and
tougher sentences for communication networks crimes, could lead to
a sharp rise in criminal prosecutions and harsher punishments for
The Sentencing Council recently announced that, from April, it
will be implementing more punitive sentences on individuals who
commit Communications Act offences. The harsher punishments have
been introduced to bring sentences in line with magistrates'
increased sentencing powers.
Breaches of section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003, which
makes it an offence to make obscene or menacing calls, are
currently punishable by up to 12 weeks' custody. However, from
April, such breaches will be punishable by up to 15 weeks'
At the end of last year, the Crown Prosecution Service announced
new guidance on 'social media crimes', which followed the
introduction of an already increased range of online offences, such
as 'revenge porn', which was introduced in 2015 by the
Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, and has led to the
prosecution of more than 200 people across England and Wales. The
Malicious Communications Act 1988 was also amended in 2015 and now
states that, for the offence of "sending letters etc with
intent to cause distress or anxiety", so-called 'internet
trolls' may now be sentenced to a term of up to two years
The latest CPS guidance highlighted and defined three main
categories of offences:-
'Virtual mobbing' is an act which
encourages others to participate in online harassment campaigns, in
other words 'egging on', and which will now carry a charge
of 'encouraging an offence' under the Serious Crime Act
'Doxxing' is a practice in which online
users make personal information public, such as a home address or
bank details, and can also amount to criminal behaviour. Similarly,
users who create derogatory hashtags to encourage harassment can be
'Baiting' is the practice of
humiliating a person online by labelling them as sexually
promiscuous or posting 'photoshopped' images of people on
social media platforms.
While the guidance was introduced to help inform decisions on
whether criminal charges should be pursued, it poses a risk that
innocent users of social media platforms could also fall foul of
sanctions or criminal investigation.
The CPS, in defending against arguments supporting the
protection of freedom of speech, reiterated that its intention is
solely to identify, prosecute and prevent hate crime born from
social media use. However, it has argued that the guidance on
social media crimes could potentially cover a much wider range of
online behaviour than specifically intended to.
Either way, it is clear that the internet can no longer be used
as an anonymous space where web users can post without
With Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions, stating
the announcement means the CPS would prosecute just as if offences
occurred offline, the need for legal representation could prove
vital. To safeguard against that eventuality, it is also advisable
for businesses to ensure its employees do not break the
increasingly stringent laws regulating the use of social media.
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