The House of Lords Communications Committee, chaired by Lord Best, will conduct a short inquiry into the legal and regulatory framework around social media and communications offences, such as one-to-one targeted harassment and ‘trolling’.
It is a problem that is in the news on a regular basis, and yet many people do not seem to realise that communications sent via social media are capable of amounting to criminal offences under a range of statutes. These include the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1988, and the Communications Act 2003.
The Committee will be holding two evidence sessions, which will look at whether the legislation on the issue of social media and communications offences is appropriate and fit for purpose or would benefit from clarification; whether the line between free speech and protection of victims is clear; and more generally, whether the steps which have already been taken to deal with these problems are sufficient, or whether further action is necessary.
On a wider note, the Committee sees this piece of work as an integral part of pursuing its interest in the way changes in media and technology are likely to affect consumers’ and citizens’ behaviour and the way in which the legal and policy debate needs to respond.
Questions likely to be raised in this inquiry include:
- Whether the law currently covering offences related to social media and communications offences is capable of adapting to the way in which people behave, given the speed of changes in technology.
- If there are areas of overlap or gaps in the range of legislation covering social media and communications offences, which means that categorising the offence is not always clear.
- Whether the sentences handed out for social media and communications offences are known, consistent and appropriate and, more generally, whether other approaches, such as restorative justice and education, might be more effective.
- How, in responding to these issues, reform to the current package of legislation can strike an effective balance between victim protection and freedom of expression.
The Committee’s first evidence session will be held on Tuesday 1 July at 4.30 pm in Committee Room 2, Palace of Westminster.
Oral evidence will be heard from:
- John Cooper QC, one of the UK’s leading silks, who has represented a number of celebrities and sports people who have been the victims of abuse through social media
- Gabrielle Guillemin, Legal Officer at ARTICLE 19, an international free speech organisation based in London. Ms Guillemin has led the organisation's work on internet policy issues since 2011, and was responsible for ARTICLE 19's third-party intervention in the Twitter Joke trial case in 2012
The Committee intends to conclude its evidence sessions before the end of July 2014 and report shortly after.