Just days before Internet Safety Day on 8th February 2022, Digital Secretary, Nadine Dorres, announced that the Online Safety Bill had been strengthened with the addition of three new criminal offences. Let’s take a look at these:
1. A “genuinely threatening” communications offence.
This is designed to capture online threats to rape, kill and/or cause physical or serious financial harm. This offence carried a sentence of up to five years in prison.
2. A harm based communication offence to capture communications sent to cause harm without a reasonable excuse.
This is designed to make it easier to prosecute online abusers. Under the old offences, there was a requirement for the content to be “grossly offensive”, “obscene” or “indecent”, however this is now being abandoned. With this new offence the focus is on the intended psychological harm, which amounts to, at the least “serious distress”, to the person receiving the communication or content, rather than having to prove that actual harm was caused.
The new offence also takes into account the context in which the communication or content was sent. It is hoped this will be of importance when dealing with violence against females, i.e persistent communications.
However, communications that are offensive but are not harmful, and communications that are sent without intention to cause harm, will not be captured, thus protecting people’s right to free expression online.
This offence carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.
3. An offence for when a person sends a communication they know to be false with the intention to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological or physical harm.
Whilst the Communications Act already makes knowingly false communications an offence, this new offence raises the threshold of criminality. The new offence includes false communications sent deliberately to cause harm, with the Court having to be satisfied that the individual posting the communication knew the content was not true before posting it.
This sentence carries a sentence of up to 51 weeks in prison.
In addition the Online Safety Bill is making revenge porn, hate crime, fraud, the sale of illegal drugs and weapons, the promotion or facilitation of suicide, people smuggling and sexual exploitation all illegal content. This means that the big tech companies and social media platforms will now have a duty of care to protect users from being exposed to this content, instead of waiting for the content being reported to them.
Further changes are expected to be made to the draft Bill before it is put to Parliament, which is expected within the next month.