Social Media Crimes are covered by existing criminal laws: Lords

Are new criminal laws needed to combat “social media crimes”?. According to a report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, it has been concluded that ‘the current laws are satisfactory enough to deal with social media crimes going on today.’

The report followed a short inquiry in the light of increasing concerns that certain types of behaviour and conduct on social media could amount to criminal offences. The examples given of the phenomenon of social media crimes included Cyber bullying, Trolling, Revenge porn, Virtual mobbing and others to determine whether these offences, were criminal offences. If so, whether a new legislation was required for dealing with these types of offending.

These “offences” emanate mostly from social networks particularly Facebook and Twitter. The Committee’s enquiry commenced into the growing trends and concerns arising from social media issues on the 12th of July and were recently presented to the House. The report highlights a staggering number of approx 34m Facebook users and 15m Twitter users allegedly involved in conducting social media crimes.

Representatives from both Facebook and Twitter were asked to present explanatory assessments of how they were dealing with complaints from their users.

In an inconclusive assessment, neither of them were able to identify an exact number of complaints that have been handled and looked after being booked. The representatives cited that their figures, could be misleading.

In an explanation to which, Twitter’s Director of Public Policy, Sinead McSweeney has said, “You could literally have a spike in reports one day, and when you dig down into them, you just find that somebody took a notion somewhere that Harry Styles was better than Justin Bieber and everybody complained about Bieber fans, that adds nothing to the substance of what you are trying to look at.”

Concluding that the current social media laws are adequate to cover these criminal offences going on at the world wide web networks, the committee report has been able to satisfy the House of Lords for the same.

The report says that existing legislation like the Communications Act 2003, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988 are sufficient in handling social medial crimes. In addition to this citation, the Committee report also established that the prosecution of such cases needs to be proportionate and properly balanced individual rights such as the ‘freedom of expression’.

How should these laws fit for the purposes of today’s emerging social media offences? The report contends, “Our starting point is that what is not an offence offline should not be an offence online. There is no specific criminal offence of bullying.”

We consider that the current range of offences, notably those found in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, is sufficient to prosecute bullying conducted using social media.”

Similarly, sending a communication which is grossly offensive and has the purpose of causing distress or anxiety is an offence under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988”.

The real need for social media regulations has not just been surfacing in the UK but in countries like India and China as well along with almost every major country of the world. In India, the National Human Rights Commission had asked the Department of Telecom to screen and remove inflammatory posts from social media sites in view of giving birth of communal and inter-religious riots in a state.

While in China, a new law can charge people with defamation, if a false rumour started by them gets reposted over 500 times. In India, current laws allow citizens to go to court over information that has even caused them “annoyance” under Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000. To ensure this is not abused, the government has now mandated that a senior police officer looks at individual cases before allowing charges to be filed in order to avoid nuisance cases.

The actual question of social media regulations lies around the issues of the real need for regulating social media, and finally, preserving freedom of expression and an open internet.

While the Facebook and Twitter representatives were strong in maintaining that any new legislation was needed to counter criminal offences on their websites, the committee apparently agreed.

The report of the committee has demonstrated some problematic issues that needed attention the complexity of which will no doubt grow over time and brings in sharp focus how existing laws either adapt or need to grow and evolve in an age of digital revolution.

In view of this concern, the Committee has also made some recommendations, advising the extension of investigation period for evidence collection and referring certain social media statutes to print media laws. The Committee has also urged Facebook & Twitter to speed up requests for identification from law enforcement agencies.

The full report on Social Media and Criminal Offences Inquiry can be accessed here: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/communications/socialmediaoffences/SMCOEvidence.pdf

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