Trouble with Trolls

By Associate Solicitor at 00:00

We hear more and more these days about individuals being arrested and charged under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and Communications Act 2003.

Although these Acts have been around for some time it is only with the increase use and exposure of social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, that we are seeing this offence come to the fore. However, public awareness of the offence is still somewhat lacking.

Often, individuals don’t realise that they are committing a serious offence and we are seeing a growing number of arrests.

The recent convictions of the twitter trolls who attacked Olympic athlete Tom Daley via Twitter has increased public awareness on the dangers of producing forms of malicious communications.

Indeed we have seen a number of high profile cases over recent years including the parents of missing school girl Madeline McCann who were viciously targeted on social media as well as Labour MP, Stella Creasy, who was subjected to targeted abuse for almost a year. The twitter troll in this case eventually received 18 weeks custody.

Under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 it is an offence to “send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety”. Or more simply, it is an offence to send messages to another person which are “indecent or grossly offensive”, threatening or false.

This means that any message sent, such as a letter, text message (SMS) and tweets on Twitter or Facebook messages etc. that could be considered indecent or grossly offensive can be an offence under this act. What’s vital to note here is that the message does not have to reach the intended recipient for an offence to occur.

Section 127(1) of the Communications Act states that it is an offence to make improper use of a public electronic communications network. This would include sending "a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character".

Section 127(2) makes it an offence to send messages "for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another". This particular offence can apply to messages sent by email or by other forms of communication. 

For offences committed under both of these acts you can receive up to six months custody and a fine of up to £5000.

It was recently reported that convictions for crimes under a law used to prosecute internet “trolls” have increased ten fold in a decade. In 2014 1,209 people were found guilty of offences under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 compared to 143 in 2004. The Ministry of Justice also reveal a similar rise in the numbers of convictions under the Malicious Communications Act.

In this day and age of technology and increased access to communication platforms we have to be extra careful about what we post. Even if no harm is intended, it could result in a criminal record and prison sentence.




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