Cyberflashers and those who orchestrate online "pile ons" could face up to two years in prison, under new laws proposed by Law Commission.
The Commission is proposing a raft of new offences to combat the rise in online abuse which is not covered by current laws.
There would be new overarching offence for online abuse that would outlaw actions such as pile on harassment coordinated against an individual online.
Cyberflashing, where a perpetrator sends an unsolicited sexual image to another device nearby, and glorifying self-harm online will also become specific offences, as will sending false or threatening communications.
The recommendations, due to be published on Wednesday, are expected to be backed by the Government amid concern at growing online abuse not only seen in recent racial attacks on footballers and sports stars but also experienced by millions of social media users.
The Commission said the legislation governing online abuse and harms had failed to keep pace with the explosion in people’s internet use. More than 70 per cent of adults now have a social media profile and one third say they have been exposed to online abuse.
Caroline Dinenage, the culture minister, said the Government would “carefully consider” the proposals as it updated laws for the digital age.
“We are putting new legal responsibilities on social media companies to protect the British public. But we have to be confident we can hold the individuals using these sites to threaten, abuse and spread hate accountable too,” she said.
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The Commission said existing offences were ineffective at criminalising genuinely harmful behaviour while they could, in some instances, disproportionately interfere with freedom of expression.
It cited vague terms such as “grossly offensive” and “indecent” which set the threshold for criminality too low and could make consensual sexting between adults an offence. At the same, pile on harassment could evade prosecution despite being genuinely harmful and distressing.
“The result is that the law as it currently stands over-criminalises in some situations and under-criminalises in others,” said the Commission.
It proposed a new offence based on likely psychological harm, where prosecutors would have to show a perpetrator intended to cause harm and had no reasonable excuse for sending the abusive posts.
Reasonable excuse would include whether the communication was meant as a contribution to a matter of public interest. Media articles would be exempt from the offence.
The offence would capture trolling as well as pile on harassment and could be enacted through amendments to current malicious communications acts, which carry a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
Cyberflashing would be included in the Sex Offences Act 2003 amended to include the sending of images or video recordings of genitalia. It would carry a maximum two years’ jail time.
Encouraging or glorifying serious self-harm is being targeted as part of the Government’s new duty of care laws which will enable the regulator, Ofcom, to force social media firms to take down such posts and fine them if they fail to do so.
However, it will also become a specific offence for those who “target intentional encouragement or assistance of self-harm at a high threshold (equivalent to grievous bodily harm),” said the Commission. It could carry a sentence of up to 14 years in jail.
It follows calls for tougher laws by Ian Russell, the father of Molly, who was just 14 when she took her own life after receiving graphic posts about suicide and self-harm on her Instagram account.
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Knowingly sending false communications would be an offence if it could be shown to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological or physical harm. Threatening communications would cover “serious harm” such as serious injury like GBH, rape, or significant financial loss.
Prof Penney Lewis, a Criminal Law Commissioner, said the reforms aimed to move from prohibited categories of communication, such as grossly offensive, to focus on the harmful consequences of online abuse.
“Online abuse can cause untold harm to those targeted and change is needed to ensure we are protecting victims from abuse such as cyberflashing and pile-on harassment,” she said.