I am encouraged that the Digital Secretary has announced that extra priority illegal offences will be written on the face of the Online Safety Bill. New criminal offences and extra measures to force social media companies to stamp out the most harmful illegal content and criminal activity on their sites quicker. While in the draft Bill, firms would have been forced to take such content down after it had been reported to them by users, now they must be proactive and prevent people being exposed in the first place.
These measures will help to clamp down on the spread of private sexual images of women without their consent. Furthermore, the new offences will capture a wider range of harms in different types of private and public online communication methods. These include harmful and abusive emails, social media posts and WhatsApp messages, as well as ‘pile-on’ harassment where many people target abuse at an individual such as in website comment sections.
The Bill will create a harm-based communications offence to capture communications sent to cause harm without a reasonable excuse. This offence will make it easier to prosecute online abusers by abandoning the requirement under the old offences for content to fit within proscribed yet ambiguous categories such as “grossly offensive,” “obscene” or “indecent”. Instead, it is based on the intended psychological harm, amounting to at least serious distress, to the person who receives the communication, rather than requiring proof that harm was caused.
The new offence will consider the context in which the communication was sent. This will better address forms of violence against women and girls, such as communications which may not seem obviously harmful but when looked at in light of a pattern of abuse could cause serious distress. For example, in the instance where a survivor of domestic abuse has fled to a secret location and the abuser sends the individual a picture of their front door or street sign.
Another offence being introduced is an offence for when a person sends a communication they know to be false with the intention to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological or physical harm. This covers false communications deliberately sent to inflict harm, such as hoax bomb threats, as opposed to misinformation where people are unaware what they are sending is false or genuinely believe it to be true.
Communications that are offensive but not harmful and communications sent with no intention to cause harm, such as consensual communication between adults, will not be captured. It will have to be proven in court that a defendant sent a communication without any reasonable excuse and did so intending to cause serious distress or worse, with exemptions for communication which contributes to a matter of public interest.
The draft Bill already included a duty of care on internet companies which host user-generated content, such as social media and video-sharing platforms, as well as search engines, to limit the spread of illegal content on these services.
I look forward to reading the provisions within the Bill and following its progress when it comes before Parliament.