Zach’s Law - how it happened
An 11-year-old boy from Liversedge may seem a long way from the legislative procedure that determines our laws in Parliament.
But Zach Eagling is an old hand when it comes to legal issues.
For almost a quarter of his life Zach has been meeting politicians and policy makers as he has fought to change the law to protect people who, like him, have epilepsy.
And on Monday evening (5 December 2022), while most young lads might have been watching the World Cup, Zach was glued to Parliament Live to watch as ministers and MPs voted to introduce a new offence – Zach’s Law.
Named after Zach, this has been laid down to stop internet trolls trying to provoke seizures in people with epilepsy by sending them flashing images online. An offence that will now incur a five year prison sentence.
So how did it happen?
It all happened quite by chance. In May 2020, Zach, then eight, was minding his own business, taking part in a challenge to complete 2.6km in laps around his back yard and raise money for the Epilepsy Society.
Zach has cerebral palsy as well as epilepsy and it was the first time he had walked unaided. The country was in lockdown and he had left his walking aid in school.
Zach was hoping to raise £2,600 for the Epilepsy Society and his mum, Claire Keer, proudly posted a video of him on Twitter. That was the moment that everything changed and Zach, though still at primary school, took the initiative to stand up for people with disabilities.
In an unprecedented attack, internet trolls flooded the Epilepsy Society’s Twitter account with flashing images and Gifs, designed to cause seizures. They tagged the posts with key words that would be picked up by anyone who lived with seizures and specifically targeted people who were celebrating their one-year seizure free milestone. An important day as people can apply to drive again once they have been seizure free for 12 months.
“Time to end the streak” wrote the trolls beneath posts with vicious strobing, flashing images and geometric patterns.
Seizures reported round the world
Zach was one of their first victims. Thankfully, he wasn’t harmed but others were. Many reported seizures following the posts. This encouraged the trolls further. Maliciously and openly, they shared images which they recommended for giving someone a seizure.
The Epilepsy Society reported the attack to the police but, it seemed, there was nothing anyone could do. The trolls were acting outside the law and the law, written in a time of type writers and printers’ ink, had not kept pace with the digital world.
Prior to the advent of social media, it would have been impossible for anyone to identify a group of people with a hidden disability such as epilepsy and target them in the street to cause harm. Twitter had become a perfect platform for keyboard warriors to do just that.
Tagging and hashtags meant that, from the anonymity of their bedrooms, they could target people who were online to seek information and support about their epilepsy. And who were enjoying a new way of socialising that was revolutionary for people who often felt isolated because of their seizures.
Reactions of horror and kindness
The media picked up on the story. The world was outraged. As Zach and his mum appeared on tv channels and in national papers, the public responded with horror and kindness in equal measure. As news of the abhorrent attack sunk in, Zach’s fundraising total on his Just Giving page, climbed by the second until it smashed the £20,000 mark.
And Zach, with the Epilepsy Society, launched a campaign to bring the trolls to justice and to make social media platforms responsible for safeguarding their users.
Zach and the charity met with politicians, the Law Commission, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, OfCom. The campaign quickly became known as Zach’s Law and Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister, pledged his support as an MP for a constituency very close to that of the Epilepsy Society. And the Daily Express took up the campaign as part of its Unmask the trolls campaign.
Impact of seizures
There have been many heroes along the way. Not least, Professor Penney Lewis, Commissioner of Criminal Law at the Law Commission who joined the charity for a roundtable attended by politicians and people with epilepsy. The Law Commission were in the process of reviewing the Draft Online Safety Bill.
While everyone has universally been horrified by the attacks, many have questioned the seriousness of seizures, and we have had to reiterate time and again the impact of a single seizure and how devastating it can be, both physically and psychologically.
What brought epilepsy home to Professor Lewis was hearing how just one seizure could mean a person has to rescind their driving licence. The penny literally dropped. Dr Lewis got it and recommended that the government should consider a specific offence to stop malicious trolling of people with epilepsy.
MPs from all parties rally around Zach
MPs from across all parties rallied behind and in front of Zach – Dean Russell, Suzanne Webb, John Nicholson, Kim Leadbeater, Paul Maynard and the list goes on. Our Chief Executive, Clare Pelham gave evidence to the Draft Online Safety Bill Committee, while members, outraged by the lethargy of the social media companies, ordered them to sort the problem out.
Gary Jones, Editor of the Daily Express chaired a high profile panel event at the Conservative Party conference, sitting alongside Zach, his mum, MPs and the charity. The world was listening.
Finally, with Zach at the helm, we began to win the fight. The trolls kept posting, intermittently but brazenly, stoking nothing but the by now universal determination to see them behind bars. Michelle Donelan was appointed new Secretary of State for Culture and quickly declared her support for Zach’s Law.
The ayes have it
And so, at 8.48pm on 7 December 2022, MPs in the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom, declared that Zach’s Law – the dream of an 11-year-old lad from Liversedge - would become law across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That trolls would no longer menace people with epilepsy online without being brought to justice.
Zach was tucked up in bed when the vote went through – it was school the next day. But he stayed awake to savour the moment he had made history; the moment MPs confirmed “the ayes have it” and the first ever law to protect people with epilepsy was passed in Parliament.
A stone’s throw from the chamber, the bells of Big Ben chimed the hour on a world that, thanks to Zach, would now be a whole lot safer.