24 May 2015

Internet ‘troll’ convictions soar: is social media to blame?

Convictions for internet “trolls” who target people with abusive or offensive material online increase eight-fold in a decade, official figures reveal.

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.

It is a crime under the act 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”.

Read more: How can you stop the trolls?

Section 127 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 emails, and cases of “persistent misuse” that cause the victim annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety.

The maximum penalty for offence under the section is six months imprisonment with a possible fine of up to £5,000.

Figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show an 18 per cent increase from the previous year, with 1,501 defendants prosecuted under the law in 2014 – including 70 juveniles. Of those convicted, 155 were jailed – compared with just seven a decade before. The average custodial sentence was 2.2 months.

Social media

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,” she said.

This was a relatively obscure provision before the internet. Professor Lilian Edwards

“It is obviously related to what has happened with social media.”

The issue of online abuse came under scrutiny after cases such as the targeting of Labour MP Stella Creasy.

She spoke of the “misery” caused after a Twitter troll retweeted menacing posts threatening to rape her and branding her a “witch”.

Other victims of trolling have included Chloe Madeley, daughter of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who told Channel 4 News in 2013 that a “huge cultural shift is needed” to deal with sexist abuse via social media.

Caroline Criado-Perez speaking to Channel 4 News in July 2013

The changes came in the wake of a case in which Paul Chambers was found guilty in May 2010 after joking on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire. His conviction was later overturned at the High Court.

Read more: Robin Hood Airport tweet joke bomb man wins appeal

Last year, 694 individuals were found guilty of offences under the Malicious Communications Act, which states that it is an offence to send a threatening, offensive or indecent letter, electronic communication or article with the intent to cause distress or anxiety.

It was the highest number for at least a decade and more than 10 times higher than the 64 convictions recorded in 2004.

In October the Government announced measures to increase the maximum sentence for trolls who are convicted under the Malicious Communications Act from six months to two years and extend the time limit for prosecutions under Section 127 to three years from the commission of offence.