Convictions for crimes under a law used to prosecute internet “trolls” have increased eight-fold in a decade, official figures have shown. Last year 1,209 people were found guilty of offences under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 – equivalent to three every day – compared with 143 in 2004.
Section 127 makes it a crime to send “by means of a public electronic communications network” a message or other material that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.
The previously little-used section has come to prominence in recent years following a string of high-profile cases of so-called trolling on social media sites.
It can also cover phone calls and e-mails, and cases of “persistent misuse” which cause the victim annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety.
Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics show that 1,501 defendants – including 70 juveniles – were prosecuted under the Act last year, while another 685 were cautioned.
Of those convicted, 155 were jailed – compared with just seven a decade before. The average custodial sentence was 2.2 months.
Compared with the previous year there was an 18% increase in convictions under Section 127 but the number has dipped since a peak in 2012 when there were 1,423.
In 2013 the then-Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, issued guidance stating that users who post offensive material online must pass a “high threshold” before they were prosecuted.
The changes came in the wake of a case in which Paul Chambers was convicted in May 2010 ogver a joke on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire. His conviction was later overturned by the Divisional Court.
Professor Lilian Edwards, director of the Centre for Internet Law and Policy at the University of Strathclyde, said the rise in prosecutions under Section 127 reflected the surge in use of social media.
“This was a relatively obscure provision before the internet. You would have been talking about poison telephone calls and there were relatively few of those. It is obviously related to what has happened with social media.”
Two contrasting factors were having an impact on the number of cases in recent years, she said, adding: “There is the DPP guidance which made prosecutions more carefully considered so that people were not being prosecuted for making jokes, for example.
“At the same time you have simply got more awareness that this is a serious problem both among the public and the police.”
The issue of online abuse came under scrutiny after cases such as the targeting of Labour MP Stella Creasy, who spoke of the “misery” she suffered caused after a Twitter troll re-tweeted menacing posts threatening to rape her and branding her a “witch”.
Other victims of trolling have included campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Chloe Madeley, daughter of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan.
The MoJ figures also revealed a similar rise in the number of convictions under the Malicious Communications Act, which makes it an offence to send a threatening, offensive or indecent letter, electronic communication or article with the intent to cause distress or anxiety.
Last year, 694 people were convicted of offences under this Act – the highest number for at least a decade and more than 10 times more than the 64 convictions recorded in 2004.
In October the Government announced measures to increase the maximum sentence for trolls convicted under the Malicious Communications Act from six months to two years and extend the time limit for prosecutions under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 to three years from the commission of offence.
This article originally appeared on the online subscription service Media Lawyer and is reproduced with permission and thanks.