Can our laws cope with online harassment, revenge porn and other internet nasties? – Amber Melville-Brown

25 09 2015

Online HarassmentEngland’s laws are slow to catch up with the proliferation of misdemeanours which occur online, says Amber Melville-Brown in piece originally published on the Spears website.

A debate is raging over sexism in the legal profession: barrister Charlotte Proudman has publicly outed fellow legal professional Alexander Carter-Silk over his private LinkedIn message to her. Mr Carter-Silk had gladly – too gladly for her liking – accepted her invitation to link and, while it was ‘probably horrendously politically incorrect…‘, commented on her ‘stunning’ profile photo. Before doing so, he may not have checked out Ms Proudman – professionally, of course – as her website describes her as a ‘barrister and feminist legal activist‘.

She reacted publicly in disgust via Twitter saying that she is on LinkedIn for business purposes, ‘not to be objectified by sexist men‘. But while her verbal rotten tomatoes were flying his way, he for the most part escaped the stocks; many have rushed to his defence, accusing her of inappropriate behaviour by her public flogging of him for his private message.

With gender issues in the news, a recent criminal decision has shown that the law is at least trying to treat both sides equally, with the first woman having just been convicted for ‘revenge porn’.

The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 made it an offence to disclose private sexual photographs or films without the consent of the subject and with the intent to cause that individual distress. Revenge porn is an international phenomenon with which our domestic law is grappling and since the offence came into force in April it is reported that there have been around a dozen convictions – of men.

But this month, Ms Paige Mitchell became the first woman to be prosecuted for the offence, pleading guilty to the charge of disclosing private sexual photographs of another woman on her Facebook page. She was given an eighteen-month suspended sentence.

Joanna Coleman, deputy chief crown prosecutor for CPS Thames and Chiltern, said, ‘These vengeful crimes are predominantly thought of as being carried out by men. This sentencing will highlight that anyone can be guilty of this offence and regardless of the defendant’s gender, once reported, it will be taken seriously.’

The internet now provides a vast social media landscape on which virtual attacks can be made on members of society. ‘Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ just doesn’t wash, to which anyone who has been abused online will attest.

Where an assault is carried out by an abuser from behind the cowards’ cloak of anonymity, gender is irrelevant. For school-aged victims attacked for being fat or ugly and who have horrifically gone on to self-harm, attempt or even succeed in suicide, it is the crime, not the gender of the perpetrator, that is relevant.

Our ancient legal system is playing catch-up with the new kid on the block that is social media. It is an offence for example, under section 127 of the Communications Act, to send a grossly offensive, indecent or obscene message through a ‘public electronic communications network’. Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1998 deals with the sending of electronic communications which are indecent, grossly offensive, threatening or false, where there is an intention to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient.

The Prevention of Harassment Act 1997 outlaws a course of conduct amounting to harassment, causing grief or distress, so a series of emails or blogs – in fact, a course of conduct is only two occasions or more – could bring the act into play.

With this patchwork of over-layered laws, victims of online abuse should be protected. But that requires them not to take abuse lying down, which no doubt some do out of embarrassment or failure to know what they can do. Privacy injunctions may be obtained to prevent disclosures; undertakings secured to deliver up private material; take-down letters can be sent to websites hosting the unlawful information; where threats to injury or blackmail are part of the aggressor’s assault, the police should be contacted. But speed is always of the essence for anyone threatened with the disclosure of private images or confidential information to prevent that data going viral.

Old-school sexism no doubt still exists. But today, attacks on individuals on both sides of the gender divide are facilitated by the great democratising tool that is the internet. None of us should be objectified because of how we look or behave. What will be stunning is if, in due course, existing and new laws act as sufficient deterrents to protect society and curb the wilder excesses of those who use the internet and social media unlawfully for ill.

Amber Melville-Brown is head of media & reputation at Withers LLP


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