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Tell the Law Commission what you think about online harms

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Katie Frank

Tell the Law Commission what you think about online harms

Epilepsy Society are encouraging people with epilepsy and those who support people with epilepsy to let the Law Commission know what they think about their proposals for online harms.

Last month Epilepsy Society welcomed the proposals made by the Law Commission to reform the law and protect people from online harms. These proposals would make the internet a safer place for people with epilepsy.

These recommendations come after Epilepsy Society and its supporters were subjected to the worst social media attack the charity has ever experienced. Over 200 flashing GIFs designed to provoke a seizure were sent by a co-ordinated group of trolls on Twitter in a 48 hour period. Following this attack Epilepsy Society launched our Zach’s Law campaign and put forward recommendations to the Government and the Law Commission to tackle online harm.

Law Commission’s Proposals

The Law Commission’s proposals for reform have been published in their consultation paper, Harmful Online Communications: The Criminal Offences.

The Law Commission’s proposals would make changes to The Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003. These changes would criminalise behaviour where a communication is likely to cause harm. This would include emails, social media posts and WhatsApp messages, and include pile-on harassment.

The proposals also create a new offence that 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, their social media followers or other people – for example, someone else who sees a harmful tweet on Twitter.

Making Your Voice Heard

Epilepsy Society has met with the Law Commission to give the charity’s views on the proposals, but it is also important that people with epilepsy make their voices heard by responding to the Law Commission’s proposals. Members of the public are being asked to give their feedback:

Email: online-comms@lawcommission.gov.uk

Post: Online Communications Team, Law Commission, 1st Floor, Tower, 52 Queen Anne’s Gate, London, SW1H 9AG.

Online form: https://consult.justice.gov.uk/law-commission/online_comms/ 

The deadline for responses is 18 December 2020.

You can also contact your Member of Parliament to ask them to support the proposals put forward by the Law Commission. You can contact your MP by email, telephone, or post and can find out who your MP is here: members.parliament.uk/FindYourMP

 Or you could tweet them with the following tweet:

@DCMS must back the proposals by the @Law_Commission and introduce regulation on social media companies by introducing #ZachsLaw. Help @epilepsysociety stop the trolls and protect people with epilepsy.

The Law Commission has some questions to help guide feedback on their proposals which you can use as a template when writing to the Law Commission. The original questions can be found here: https://consult.justice.gov.uk/law-commission/online_comms/

 Questions

Question 1: Do you agree that section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 and section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 should be repealed and replaced with a new communications offence according to the model that the Law Commission propose?

Question 2: Do you agree that the offence should cover the sending or posting of any letter, electronic communication, or article (of any description) and should not cover the news media, broadcast media, or cinema?

Question 3: Do you agree that the offence should require that the communication was likely to cause harm to someone likely to see, hear, or otherwise encounter it?

Question 4: Do you agree that the offence should not require that the communication was likely to cause harm?

Question 5: Do you agree that proof of an actual harm should not be required?

Question 6: Do you agree that “harm” should be defined as emotional or psychological harm, amounting to at least serious emotional distress?

Example answer: I am pleased that the Law Commission has recognised the impact content online can have on people with epilepsy and that it can lead to serious emotional distress. Being targeted by trolls who send flashing images can cause serious emotional distress and physical harm for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Even if people with epilepsy or their family are targeted, they may not have photosensitive epilepsy, but being targeted in this way can lead to significant emotional or psychological harm.

However, it is important to recognise that the intent to cause seizures by using flashing images or videos primarily seeks to cause actual bodily harm. The effects of seizures can be serious, people can be seriously hurt, lose their driving licence, lost their job, enter financial hardship, and some people sadly lose their lives. Online harm has physical consequences for people with epilepsy and their families.

Question 7: What list of factors should be used to indicate what “serious emotional distress” means?

Question 8: Do you agree that the context (including the characteristics of the audience) when the communication was sent should be considered?

 Question 9: Do you agree that subjective awareness of a risk of harm, as well as intention to cause harm, should be taken into account?

Information: Subjective awareness means your own knowledge of or opinion of a particular situation. Therefore, should whether or not someone was aware their actions could cause harm be taken into account?

Question 10: Do you agree that the offence should include a requirement that the communication was sent or posted without reasonable excuse?

Question 11: Do you agree that a court must consider whether the communication was or was meant as a contribution to a matter of public interest?

Question 12: Do you think that the new offence would be compatible with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Information: Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights ensures the right to freedom of expression and information. Article 10 allows for limited restrictions on speech and information. These restrictions must only be those required to uphold the law and in order to ensure a democratic society.

Question 13: Do you think that the new offence would be compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Information: Article 8 ensures the right to a private and family life in your home and correspondence. Article 8 allows for limited restrictions on speech and information. These restrictions must only be those required to uphold the law and in order to ensure a democratic society.

Question 14: Should there be a specific offence covering threatening communications?