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What is online harassment?

Online harassment and cyber bullying can take a wide variety of forms including:

  • “trolling” (sending menacing or upsetting messages)
  • identity theft
  • “doxxing” (making available personal information)
  • cyber stalking

The current law

The general legal principle is that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. There are a number of criminal offences which can be involved, including stalking, harassment, sending malicious communications and improper use of a public electronic communications network. A more recent addition is the offence of “revenge pornography” under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.

The Crown Prosecution Service has published Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media setting out when it will usually be in the public interest to prosecute certain types of potentially criminal communications. When section 103 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 comes into force, it will require the Government to issue guidance on action which might be appropriate for social media providers to take against bullying, intimidation or insulting behaviour.Some have argued that existing offences are adequate to deal with online harassment. Others have pointed out that several offences pre-date the widespread use of social media platforms, and have called for the law to be reviewed.

Pressure for change

Some have argued that existing offences are adequate to deal with online harassment. Others have pointed out that several offences pre-date the widespread use of social media platforms, and have called for the law to be reviewed.

Generally recent governments have tended to favour self-regulation wherever possible, working with the industry to deal with problems that arise. There has been resistance to introducing specific legislation to deal with online harassment and trolling. However, over the past year, arguments for a change in the law seem to have been gaining ground. The Law Commission has consulted on whether it should look at the “scope and interrelationship” of the various pieces of criminal law which apply.

Will there be a change in the law?

Before the 2017 General Election was announced, the Conservative government announced that ministers had started work on a new Internet Safety Strategy which would lead to a Green Paper in summer 2017.

The 2017 Conservative manifesto promised to take steps to protect the vulnerable online, and develop a “digital charter” balancing freedom with protection for users. This would be underpinned by a regulatory framework, with a regulator and a sanctions regime, and a power to introduce a levy from social media companies and communication service providers to counter internet harms.

The 2017 Labour manifesto promised to give the police more resources to deal with cybercrime and to ensure that “tech companies are obliged to take measures” to tackle online abuse. The Liberal Democrats promised a digital bill of rights protecting people’s powers over their own information.

What can victims do?

Victims of online harassment and abuse can report this either to the police, the social media platform or both. Social media providers offer various ways of reporting abuse. Generally speaking, they tend to rely on users to make such reports, and then refer complaints to moderators who decide whether content should be removed.

Are social media companies doing enough?

The Home Affairs Committee published a report on Hate Crime in May 2017 which criticised social media and technology companies for not doing enough. Facebook announced in the same month that it would appoint an additional 3,000 content moderators to remove content more quickly in the wake of broadcasts of killings and assaults. The sheer volume of users makes the task of monitoring content very difficult.


Scotland also has a range of offences which can be used to deal with online and offline abuse. These include threatening and abusive behaviour, stalking and improper use of a public telecommunications network, along with common law offences such as breach of the peace.  The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 provides civil remedies in Scotland.  Scotland has also introduced a new offence to deal with “revenge pornography”.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has its own Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order, and Malicious Communications (Northern Ireland) Order. Like England, Scotland and Wales, it is covered by the provisions in the Communications Act 2003 which make it an offence to make improper use of a public communications network.

Further information

More detailed information on the law on harassment is available in Library Briefing Paper 6648, The Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Library Briefing Paper 6261,   looks at the specific stalking offences which have been introduced in England and Wales and in Scotland.

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