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Cyberbullying- Should UK Criminal Law Hold Trolls and Cyberbullies to Account? 

Cyberbullying- Should UK Criminal Law Hold Trolls and Cyberbullies to Account? 

Within UK law, there is an absence of a definition specifying exactly what type of behaviour and action constitutes ‘cyberbullying’ or ‘trolling’. This is a gaping omission in the law considering that one in three children in the UK between the ages of 10 and 19 are subjected to cyberbullying according to the Cybersmile Foundation. Furthermore, the problem of internet trolling is becoming increasingly widespread, particularly on popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram.

In terms of cyberbullying, it can be contended that more needs to be done to address this issue due to its seriousness and prevalence. Firstly, it is important to note that all schools in the UK are required to have an anti-bullying policy either under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 or the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations 2003, depending on the school type in question. As part of these policies, the procedures for addressing cyberbullying of both teachers and students should be clearly addressed so there is a definitive framework in place in case any issues arise.

In terms of legislation, as stated above, there is no specific offence of cyberbullying or trolling at present. Therefore, prospective litigants are forced to rely on legislation such as the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 or the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 which cover threatening behaviour or harassment including online and offline stalking. The Malicious Communications Act 1988 may also be utilised as this deals with comments which cause ‘distress or anxiety’. Furthermore, the Communications Act 2003 can be applicable also in relation to threats made online. Arguably, it is evident that a specific and focused new piece of legislation should be introduced in the UK to directly address these two grave social problems as a matter of urgency, particularly when one considers the high suicide rates that are associated with cyberbullying and online abuse.

A positive development in terms of combatting internet trolling has been recently introduced by the UK government in terms of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill 2013-2014 to 2014-2015, which is before Parliament at present. Under this piece of legislation, the current maximum sentence of six months (under the Malicious Communications Act) will be quadrupled to a maximum sentence of two years for those who post abusive comments online, as magistrates will now be allowed to transfer on serious cases to the crown courts. The legislation would also allow the police a greater amount of time to obtain evidence in these cases in order to enable more successful prosecutions. This new piece of legislation is arguably a positive advancement, as the previous legislation was introduced over 10 years ago prior to the huge growth in popularity of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

In terms of cyberbullying, there is no specific legislation to deal with the issue, no specific definition of what is encompassed under the umbrella term of ‘cyberbullying’ and no indication of the manner in which online offences would be policed if this manner of legislation were to be introduced. It is evident that this type of legislation is necessary to deal with these issues as it would sent a direct message to all cyberbullies that any form of bullying online will not be tolerated and could potentially be punishable by a prison sentence. However, a possible problem could arise if a child or adult within the UK was bullied online by a person outside of their jurisdiction as UK law would not be applicable in this scenario.

Thus, it is arguable that a co-ordinated cross border approach is required to effectively implement legal means to combat cyberbullying. This is critical as technology does not respect country borders or jurisdictional boundaries. The European Commission has addressed the issue of cyberbullying by launching a Safer Internet Day, providing information to parents and children about internet safety and responsible internet behaviour in addition to getting mobile operators in Europe to sign an agreement on child safety (IP/07/139) in 2007. Furthermore, they have encouraged social networking companies to help keep young people safe online through self-regulation and in 2009, 17 of these major companies signed an agreement committing to work towards greater child safety online. These are all positive advancements but it is evident that increased action at European level will be necessary to combat the rapid increase in trolling and cyberbullying.

So what does the future hold in terms of cyberbullying and trolling laws? It is clear that as technology continues on its path of exponential development, legislation specifically focused on the issues of trolling and cyberbullying will be necessary in order to protect children and adults online. The UK have taken an extremely positive step in terms of addressing the issue of trolling through the Criminal Courts and Justice Bill and it is hopeful that a similar piece of legislation focused specifically on cyberbullying will be introduced in the near future. Undoubtably, the issues of cyberbullying and trolling will continue to dominate the media and society for many years and thus it is of critical importance that a specific legislative framework is introduced to attempt to address these issues as soon as possible.

Furthermore, direct and focused legislation which deals specifically with cyberbullying and trolling would give greater clarity to potential litigants and to the police force as to when to bring a case and the likelihood of its success. Stringent laws would also highlight the severity and reprehensible nature of online abuse and trolling which may encourage both children and adults to reconsider the comments they post online and the possible consequences  that may result if they do decide to engage abusive behaviour online. Evidently as technology continues to grow, it is clear that cyber-abuse and trolling will mirror this growth and become even more prevalent. Thus, action is required now to attempt to address this problem and combat it before it reaches epidemic proportions.

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