The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will prosecute web users who impersonate others or use fake online profiles to “harass” them under new guidelines for England and Wales published today.
The CPS advises prosecutors to act when “fake online profiles and websites” are created to “damage and humiliate victims.” The CPS also warns that information could be shared “in such a way that it appears as though the victims themselves made the statements,” adding that this “may amount to an offence, such as grossly offensive communication or harassment.”
The guidelines raise questions for the well-established tradition of social media parody accounts. These are particularly popular on Twitter, where parody accounts of prominent politicians like British Conservative minister Nick Boles and US Presidential candidate Donald Trump are familiar sights.
Alison Saunders, the current Director of Public Prosecutions who has acquired a reputation for feminist crusading, framed the new guidelines in terms of women’s issues, saying: “Worryingly we have seen an increase in the use of cyber-enabled crime in cases related to Violence against Women and Girls, including domestic abuse”
However, closer examination of the new guidelines reveal that prosecutors are encouraged to take much more questionable cases to trial, ranging from controversial “hate speech” cases to cases involving speech that is “grossly indecent or offensive.”
The CPS reminds prosecutors that:
Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 deals with the sending to another of an electronic communication which is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is an intention to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient.
The Malicious Communications Act has already been used to jail teenagers for posting offensive messages on Facebook. In another notorious case, a man was put on trial under the Act after he posted a joke bomb threat on Twitter.
The CPS also urges prosecutors to watch for hate speech on social media.
Prosecutors must also have regard to whether the offence was motivated by any form of discrimination against the victim’s ethnic or national origin, gender, disability, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation or gender identity; or the suspect demonstrated hostility towards the victim based on any of those characteristics. The presence of any such motivation or hostility will mean that it is more likely that prosecution is required.
This is in line with other European states’ crackdowns against online hate speech and follows the arrest of a man in Scotland for alleged hate speech against Syrian migrants on Facebook.
In their press statement, the CPS promised to provide a “high quality of service to victims” and “make sure that offenders are brought to justice.”