According to Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, proposed changes to the law could see maximum jail sentences for internet trolls quadrupled. The current maximum sentence for online abuse is six months, but proposals could see this extended to two years.
Grayling said that he was determine to “take a stand against a baying cyber-mob” through the introduction of tougher laws. Grayling also describe internet trolls as “cowards who are poisoning our national life.”
“No-one would permit such venom in person,” Grayling said, “so there should be no place for it on social media.”
Currently, prosecutions for abusive or threatening behaviour online are handled under the Malicious Communications Act, and dealt with in magistrates’ courts. However, the act is now a decade old and, crucially, predates the role of social media in society, leading many to believe that it is no longer sufficient.
The quadrupling of the maximum sentence is not the only change that the propose reforms would make. The law, which would take the form of an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, would allow police more time for the collection of evidence relating to cases of online abuse. This would allow more prosecutions to be carried out successfully. Magistrates would also be empowered to refer the most serious cases of cyber-abuse to the crown courts.
There has been a particular spotlight on the matter of internet trolling recently, as many news outlets have reported on the online abuse that has been suffered by TV presenter Chloe Madeley. The spate of abuse came after Madeley spoke out in defence of controversial (and, she claimed, misunderstood) comments made by her mother Judy Finnigan on the subject of rape. After speaking out, Madeley received a number of abusive and messages through social media from internet trolls, including threats of rape.
Madeley herself has welcomed the news of the proposed law changes. However, she has expressed the view that social media should also be regulated. Whilst expressing her support for the concept of free speech, she said that “threats of any kind must not be interpreted as freedom of speech. Threatening to harm others is extreme and crosses the line of personal opinion into criminal behaviour.”
The proposed amendment is currently on its way through parliament, and is due to enter the House of Lords for debate within a week. The changes would only affect England and Wales and not Scotland.