24 Feb 2019

Should online abuse become a criminal offence?

It appears that if you are in the public eye, many people think it’s perfectly fine to sit behind a smartphone or a computer and direct abuse at you. Celebrity Katie Price, seemed to have had enough of receiving online abuse. Katie Price is certainly a controversial figure who doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. But does this necessarily make her a fair target for online abuse?

She doesn’t think so and I am supporting her. Katie Price and her children have been suffering from online abuse and harassment long before many members of Parliament started to recognise online harassment and internet abuse as an issue worth discussing. I have worked as an harassment lawyer on many internet law cases in the past 20 years and can attest that the type of abuse and harassment that Ms Price and her family are enduring is extremely unpleasant and certainly unacceptable.

In the past, I suspect, some people even felt that Ms Price deserved the abuse she was experiencing. But that was long before MPs realised that they too, could become the target of online harassers. Now, Katie Price is calling on the UK government to adopt Harvey’s Law, named after her son, Harvey Price, to make online abuse a specific criminal offense. She wants the government to create a register of offenders, in the same way that in the United States they have a register of sex offenders.Harassment lawyer Yair Cohen

A register of internet trolls might never become a reality, but online abuse should perhaps become a criminal offense. After all, there is an increasing number of people who are put off from going online because of the abuse they experience and I know a lot of people in the public eye who get it every single day.
Earlier this month I spoke to Jason Mohammad on BBC radio.You can read the interview or listen to it here: Should online abuse become a criminal offence?

Jason Mohammad: It appears you are in the public eye. Many people think it’s perfectly fine to sit behind a smartphone or computer and send abuse. Well, the TV presenter [Katie Price 00:00:19] has simply had enough. She’s calling on the UK government to adopt Harvey’s Law, named after her son, Harvey Price, to make online abuse a specific criminal offense, creating a register of offenders.
Jason Mohammad: So lines are open on this story for you to have your say this morning on Radio Wales.Β  Do you think online abuse should be made a criminal offense? And maybe you are put off from going online because of the abuse you could experience. I know a lot of people in the public eye who get it every single day.

Jason Mohammad: Let’s talk to Yair Cohen who’s a social media lawyer from the Internet Law Center. Yair, good morning to you. Good to have you. How are you?
Yair Cohen: Hey, good morning. Excellent, excellent.

Yair Cohen social media lawyerJason Mohammad: How does it stand at the moment? Is there anybody stopping somebody sitting in their bedroom sending a lot of hateful abuse to somebody within the public eye?
Yair Cohen: The law should be stopping them. We have got laws in place, the same laws that apply to offline activities also apply to online activities. I think that, over the years, people have been made to think that they are two different societies. There is the online society and there’s the offline society, whereas the online society is completely unregulated. You can do whatever you want. There are no consequences for your actions, whilst the offline society, you’re pretty much heavily regulated. There is the police, there is the court, there is everything else. And what we are starting to see now is a bit of a shift in understanding that there aren’t two societies. People are the same people, and what is happening online affects that individual, and their families, and the children, and the parents offline as well.Yair Cohen speaks to Jason Mohammed

Yair Cohen: So the laws are pretty much the same laws. We’re talking about particularly the law of harassment. When one is being harassed online, the harassment is an ongoing thing. It is there 24/7. It is there all the time for everyone to see. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t stop when you switch the computer off. So we will probably be looking at an offense of harassment being committed by people who just shout abuse at other people online.

Jason Mohammad: So, Yair, when you look at some of the newspapers, you see very often there are articles whereby members of Parliament, politicians, television presenters, sports stars are being abused on a daily basis. Therefore, it begs the question whether social media companies should be taking much more responsibility.
Yair Cohen: The approach by government, especially during the Tony Blair era when the internet just started to become more widely available, was that free speech was king, which means the Crown Prosecution Service was giving instructions to the police not to even investigate offenses that are committed online that involve abuse and harassment. It was considered as something which might interfere with free speech, and it wasn’t until very recently where members of Parliament started to receive abuse themselves, and experience the strength of the harassment, that suddenly there’s been a shift in mindset, and police is starting now to investigate because they are told that they have to do that.
Jason Mohammad: So basically if, Yair, for example, you switched on your phone in the morning, and you were subject to some sort of abuse, what would you do? The first thing you’d have to do surely is go to the police.
Yair Cohen: It depends. It depends on the strength, it depends on the severity of it, but most people will go to the police. Unfortunately, the police is still not [inaudible 00:04:32] up to dealing with those sort of things, so the police will say, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s happening online. Just go home,” and it happens time and time again, and we sometimes have to send people four, five, six times back to the police station and say, “No, no, no. You’ve got to tell them that they’ve got to investigate.”
Yair Cohen: The alternative is to take out a civil injunction, because remember harassment is both a civil wrongdoing and a criminal wrongdoing. So even if police isn’t doing anything, the individual can either take a private prosecution, so they themselves can go to the magistrate courts and start a case against their abuser, or they can go to a civil court and obtain a civil injunction, which, of course, is very expensive.
Jason Mohammad: Yair, good to talk to you. Thank you very much indeed. That is Yair Cohen speaking to us this morning.

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