The Law on Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is the term used to describe any form of bullying that makes use of technology to deliberately upset or threaten a person. It can be conducted by a single person or a group of people, and can cause significant distress. In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases reported in the media of young people committing suicide as a direct result of being victims of cyberbullying.
In this guide, we will explore what constitutes cyberbullying and how the law on cyberbullying in the UK aims to protect victims and punish those that commit a criminal offence.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying can be defined as the use of electronic communication devices to bully a person. Electronic communication can include the use of computers, mobile phones, tablets and games consoles. Cyberbullying can take place through the use of emails, text messages, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, chat rooms, interactive video games and in many other areas too. As technology advances, more potential avenues for cyberbullying open up.
Examples of cyberbullying could include posting mean, offensive or embarrassing comments or photos on social networking websites, sending threatening or abusive emails, or creating fake online profiles to embarrass or belittle another person.
Unfortunately, cyber bullying is widespread on the internet, particular amongst young people. A national survey conducted by the charity BullyingUK (part of Family Lives) found that 42% of people under 25 years old have felt unsafe online. With 56% of under 25s saying they had witnessed others having been bullied online.
Is cyberbullying a crime?
Cyberbullying in itself is not a crime, and is not covered by a specific law in the UK. However, by committing an act of cyber bullying, a person may be committing a criminal offence under a number of different acts. This include the following:
Protection from Harassment Act 1997
Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 it is a criminal offence for a person to pursue a course of conduct which amounts to the harassment of another, which the perpetrator knows or ought to know amounts to harassment. This could include sending a person multiple abusive emails with the intention of causing alarm or distress. A person found guilty of this offence could receive up to six months imprisonment, a financial penalty or both.
Section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 provides the potential for greater punishment to those found guilty of causing another person to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against them. A person found guilty of this offence could receive up to 5 years in prison, as well as a fine.
The 1997 Act also gives Courts the power to grant restraining orders against those found guilty of an offence in order to protect the victim.
Malicious Communications Act 1988
Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 states that it is an offence for any person to send a communication that is "indecent or grossly offensive" for the purpose of causing "distress or anxiety to the recipient". The Act also extends to threats and information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender of the communication. A person found guilty of this offence is liable to receive a prison sentence of up to 6 months, a fine (currently of up to £5,000) or even both.
Communications Act 2003
Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 makes it a criminal offence to send via any electronic communication network a message or other matter that is deemed "grossly offences or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character". If found guilty of an offence under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, a person can receive up to six months in prison, a fine or both.
Obscene Publications Act 1959
The Obscene Publications Act 1959 makes it an offence to publish an obscene article. An obscene article is classed as one whose effect is to deprave and corrupt persons likely to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in the article. Publishing includes circulating, showing, playing or projecting the article or transmitting the data.
Public Order Act 1986
Under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, it is an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviour, writing or any visual representations likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress within the hearing or sight of a person. With regards to cyberbullying, this offence could apply where the camera or video functionality now found on the vast majority of mobile phones is used as a way of causing such harassment, alarm or distress.
Computer Misuse Act 1990
If in the course of cyberbullying a person hacks into the victim's online accounts or personal computer, they may be committing an offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.
Cyber Bullying in the Workplace
Bullying in the workplace is an increasing problem, especially with regards to cyber bullying. One in five employees have experienced some form of workplace bullying, which can result in time off work due to illness and stress. Reports suggest that bullying in the workplace costs UK employers an estimated £2bn a year in lost productivity and sick pay.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, all employers have a duty of care to provide employees with a safe working environment. If an employee is a victim of cyberbullying at work through the use of the company's computer equipment and infrastructure, the employer may be in breach of their duty to protect employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
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