Sending threatening posts among offences in revised online safety bill

Joining digital pile-ons, sending threatening social media posts and deliberately posting hoax bomb threats are among the new criminal offences that could result in jail sentences under proposed online safety laws.

Tech firms will also be required to prevent users from being exposed to content such as revenge porn, fraud and the sale of illegal drugs, or face the threat of substantial fines under the proposed changes. Previously, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter had to take such content down if it was flagged to them but now they would be legally required to prevent users from being exposed to them in the first place.

The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, said: “We are listening to MPs, charities and campaigners who have wanted us to strengthen the legislation, and today’s changes mean we will be able to bring the full weight of the law against those who use the internet as a weapon to ruin people’s lives and do so quicker and more effectively.”

The online safety bill is expected to be introduced to parliament over the next few months and is designed to protect users from harmful content. Under the changes brought forward by Dorries, the legislation will introduce three new online communications offences for individuals proposed by the Law Commission, an independent body that reviews laws in England and Wales.

Those offences are: sending or posting a message that conveys a threat of serious harm, sending a communication with the intent of causing psychological harm or serious emotional distress, and deliberately sending a false message with the intention of causing harm.

The government is introducing the offence of sending a genuinely threatening message, which would carry a sentence of up to five years, in order to “better capture online threats to rape, kill and inflict physical violence or cause people serious financial harm”. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said it would offer better protection for public figures such as MPs, celebrities and footballers who regularly receive threatening posts and messages.

The “psychological harm” offence, which carries a sentence of up to two years, is designed to cover a range of online incidents including Twitter pile-ons – where many people direct abuse at an individual – but also examples of threatening behaviour against women and girls, such as a domestic abuse survivor being tracked to their new location by their abuser and being sent a picture of their front door. Content posted by individuals on comment sections of websites, including newspapers, will be included within the scope of the offence.

The false communications offence, which carries a maximum sentence of up to 51 weeks, covers messages or posts deliberately sent to inflict harm such as hoax bomb threats. However, the offender has to be aware that the message or post is untrue before sending it, so if that person posted on Facebook that people should inject themselves with Dettol to cure themselves of coronavirus the court would have to prove that the individual knew it was false information before putting it online.

Dorries has moved to counter one of the most vociferous criticisms of the bill under its draft form, that it failed to make clear what constitutes the “illegal content” that users must be protected from. The DCMS has published an updated list of that content, which includes: revenge porn; promoting suicide; people smuggling; drug and weapons dealing; hate crime; fraud; and encouraging suicide. If tech platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube fail to shield people from encountering this kind of content, then they face substantial fines from the communications regulator charged with overseeing the act, Ofcom.

Damian Collins MP, the Conservative chair of a joint committee of MPs and peers that scrutinised the bill, welcomed the changes, which echoed recommendations from the committee last year. “These changes will give social media businesses more clarity on what’s expected of them, and users more certainty that they will be protected, especially children. The prime minister made clear that he wanted this bill to be introduced in this session of parliament, and I look forward to speaking in favour of it soon.”

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