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New changes to law could tackle internet trolls

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Nicola Swanborough

New changes to law could tackle internet trolls

Epilepsy Society welcomes new proposals from the Law Commission to reform the law and better protect people from online harm. The news follows an ongoing campaign by the charity to make it a criminal offence to target people with epilepsy with malicious posts designed to trigger seizures.

Epilepsy Society has warmly welcomed  new proposals that will bring internet trolls within the reach of the law and make social media a safer place for people with epilepsy.
The proposals, recommended by the Law Commission, will fast forward the law into the 21st century and better protect people from harmful online abuse such as malicious posts designed to trigger seizures.


The charity has been campaigning for the justice system to be up-dated in order to address this type of abuse that would not have been possible prior to the advent of social media.

Attack by internet trolls

In recent months, the charity and its supporters have been the victims of an ongoing co-ordinated attack by internet trolls who have bombarded its Twitter account with more than a thousand flashing images designed to trigger seizures in people with epilepsy. 
Prior to social media, it would have been impossible to identify, and collectively target, a group of people with a specific disability such as photosensitive epilepsy.
One of the victims targeted by the trolls was nine-year-old Zach Eagling who has epilepsy and cerebral palsy. His mum had posted videos of him taking part in a fundraising challenge.
Several people have experienced seizures as part of the attack.

Not fit for purpose

The charity strongly believes that the current law is not fit for dealing with this type of offence and has been campaigning vociferously for the behaviour to be made a specific criminal offence under “Zach’s Law”, and for the Crown Prosecution Service to instruct how criminals can best be prosecuted.
Clare Pelham, Chief Executive at the Epilepsy Society, said: “The Law Commission’s proposals will fast forward the English justice system into the 21st century and meet these criminals head on. Social media has developed at a pace that far outstrips the law, providing a safe space for internet trolls to brazenly target disabled people and cause physical harm.


“I have always said that social media is a Wild West. Well, finally the sheriff has ridden into town.”
 

Reforms to two acts

The charity has garnered the support of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in its quest to stamp out abusive behaviour which could result in physical injury and, in extreme circumstances, death.
The Law Commission’s proposals include reforms to two acts: The Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003. They would criminalise behaviour where a communication is likely to cause harm.
This would cover emails, social media posts and WhatsApp messages, in addition to pile-on harassment (when a number of different individuals send harassing communications to a victim).

Risk of harm

The first new offence relates to sending or posting a communication that is likely to cause harm to a particular audience. It would apply where a defendant intends to harm, or is aware of a risk of harming when sending or posting a communication. The offence does not require proof that anyone was actually harmed.
The audience could include the recipient of a message, the defendant’s social media followers or other people – for example, someone else who sees a harmful tweet on Twitter.

 

Flush out cowards

Clare Pelham continued: “We have been campaigning relentlessly to bring these criminals within the reach of the law and the new proposals will do just that. The Law Commission has listened to the voices of people with epilepsy and acted swiftly and with precision. Quite rightly, people with epilepsy should expect to be able to connect and engage on social media without fear of harm. 
“The new proposals will enable the law to flush out the cowards who hide behind anonymous names and target people with epilepsy as a form of perverted entertainment.
“We are delighted with the news and thank the Law Commission for responding to our campaign and showing a clear understanding of the havoc this type of vile abuse has been causing on social media, and more specifically on Twitter. We also thank Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden for recognising that such abuse has no place on social media.”

 

Consultation period

The Law Commission is now consulting on its proposals and the Epilepsy Society will be meeting with the Commission to share its full response. The consultation runs until 18 December 2020 and forms part of the work on Online Harms that is being carried out by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Home Office.
The paper addresses the criminal law provision that applies to individuals but not the social media platforms. This will be addressed through regulatory reform as part of the Online Harms Bill.

Oliver Dowden responds


Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said in the paper: “Online communication has been a lifeline for many in recent months but it should not be a refuge for abusive, harmful or criminal behaviour.
“I thank the Law Commission for its review and look forward to seeing the final recommendations on its proposed reforms to criminal law next year.
“We will soon introduce new legislation to put more responsibility on companies so they have the right systems in place to protect people online.”