This time last year I reported that summer 2013 had seen an explosion of online abuse. From TV academics, politicians, journalists, campaigners to troubled teenagers, certain individuals (and groups of individuals) were using social media to target vulnerable people. This summer has felt less dramatic on a day to day basis but I thought it would be helpful to review the past three months.
For many people last year, simply getting the police to take threats seriously was a real issue. What a difference a year makes! In June 2014, it was reported that social media crimes now make up "at least half" of the calls that British police receive every day, according to the BBC. Chief Constable Alex Marshall, head of Britain's College of Policing, said, "as people have moved their shopping online and their communications online, they've also moved their insults, their abuse and their threats online."
Some police attitudes remain overly pragmatic, with one anonymous officer stating, "a lot of the time [...] it's that whole attitude of, 'I don't know what to do, I'll call the police, they'll sort it out for me…it should be a case of let's be sensible, let's not be friends with that person on Facebook, perhaps contact Facebook first or don't use Facebook. It's common-sense stuff.” However on 11th September the CPS and Association of Chief Police Officers published a protocol on how to handle stalking offences. This new agreement aims to improve cooperation and provide greater support to victims who have been repeatedly followed, contacted, spied on or threatened.
At the same time the CPS released figures regarding prosecutions for stalking and harassment. The 20% rise in prosecutions follows the enforcement of the law that criminalises behaviour causing serious alarm or distress. Despite this relative success, in late August Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, president of the Supreme Court, pointed out that developments in information technology were presenting "enormous challenges" for the law. He has recommended a rethink and overhaul of the law on privacy and communications.
Despite this call for an overhaul, at the end of July, the House of Lords concluded that no new legislation was required. However clarification over when an "indecent communication" could and should be subject to prosecution would be welcomed. During their investigations, the Lords took every opportunity to grill the various social media sites about their processes and procedures.
Over the summer we awaited the outcome of the Peter Nunn case. In early September he was found guilty of sending indecent, obscene or menacing messages to well-known cyber abuse campaigner, Stella Creasy MP. A point of particular interest is that he was not the originator of some of the tweets. Therefore even if the tweet did not originate with you, it could still be an offence to retweet something offensive. He is due to be sentenced any day now, and the judge has not ruled out a prison sentence.
Nunn’s offensive tweets were sent as a response to a feminist campaign to put Jane Austen on the £10 note, however, it seems that female gamers continue to be subject to attack by misogynistic trolls.Anita Sarkeesian is still being attacked and was recently forced to leave her San Francisco home due to an ongoing tirade of abuse and threats. In the UK, an alleged link between Zoe Quinn, female games developer, and a video games journalist, has resulted in her being targeted by male gamers. Whilst this is part of a broader picture of sexism and inequality in certain industries, the increasing willingness of the police to take online threats seriously should help those suffering from abuse, and encourage more women to speak out against unacceptable online harassment.
And finally, just as you thought cyber abuse could not descend any lower. There have been reports in the press about ‘swatters’; these irresponsible and thoughtless people trick emergency services into dispatching police SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams to the homes of unsuspecting victims. Reliant on online technology to hack into systems, they use chatrooms and other social media to swap information. Although swatters seem to be predominantly operating from the US, one particular FBI investigation suggested that three of the members of a group live in the UK. Crimes being committed by these people are no doubt covered by existing UK legislation, yet it will probably become another of Lord Neuberger’s “enormous challenges".
Note: On the afternoon of 29 September, Peter Nunn was jailed for 18 weeks.