Online Harassment

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Health Assured team

14 October 2022

There has been a surge of online harassment as more people spent time at home and increased internet usage. This has resulted in organisations such as the police, cybersecurity and charities reporting an increase in online abuse. There has been an increase in attacks within video applications such as Zoom where ‘zoom bombing’ has taken place. This is where individuals join meetings that they were not invited to with the intention of causing as much disruption as possible.

Online Harassment UK Law

There is no legal definition for online harassment under UK law. Therefore, the general definition has a wide scope, defined as offensive, abusive, violent, threatening, racist behaviour to cause alarm or distress. For online harassment to take place it must be conducted on at least two occasions. If there has only been a single communication, it is unlikely it would constitute as harassment, but could be considered a malicious communication. For a malicious communication to be qualified or be committed, a message must be sent to another person, or sent via a public communications network, which is indecent, grossly offensive, obscene, threatening or menacing.

The online harassment term is a marination of statutory law, the term has an elastic definition, which is covered under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. Under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 it is an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or indecent.  Online Harassment is also covered under The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 which covers threatening behaviour or harassment, including online and offline stalking.  The Act also protects against cyber bullying which can lead to different forms of harassment and abuse. This includes:

  • Virtual mobbing: Encouraging online users to harass someone on social media
  • Doxxing: Publishing someone’s personal information
  • Trolling: Deliberately posting messages which is intended to provoke an angry response
  • Baiting: Falsely accusing someone of being involved in sexual activity
  • Cyber-stalking: Repeated use of online messaging to frighten or harass
  • Spamming: Sending many unwanted messages to an online user
  • Flaming: Abusing someone in a live chat forum

Online Harassment can also be categorised under both civil and criminal law. Under the civil courts an online user subjected to online harassment may have several different claims for recourse, including defamation of character and misuse of confidential information. Online defamation refers to any false statements or allegations posted in an online context that causes or is likely to cause severe damage to someone's reputation or to their business. Criminal offences can also be pursued from the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Communications Act 2003.

To tackle online harassment, the government will be introducing new online safety laws. The Online Safety Bill will make big tech companies accountable and hold a duty of care to the online users of these companies. The bill will also protect children from harmful content such as pornography and restrict users’ exposure to illegal data, while also protecting freedom of speech in the cyber world. Online platforms which fail in the duty to protect people of all characteristics will be accountable to a regulator, this could potentially lead to prosecutions; facing fines or permanently being removed.

If you are experiencing harassment, you can take the following steps:

  • Report to the social network company providing the service – Many social media providers have user policies that individuals must follow and a process for reporting any concerns.
  • Report to the police – Where you feel concerns about an individual’s behaviour, you can contact 101 to report this to the police.

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