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The UK is preparing to criminalize what is perceived as internet trolling that causes “likely psychological harm,” thanks to the country’s upcoming Online Safety Bill that is introducing a new set of criminal offenses.
And while the punishment internet users in the UK could face under the new legislation is clear – up to two years in prison – the definitions of their “crimes” are a good deal murkier.
In addition to their posts “likely” causing psychological harm, users can also be accused of committing a crime if they post messages containing “threatening communication” – but not necessarily, as defined in the previous law dealing with online hate speech and abuse, because they are found to intend to follow through on the threat.
Instead, it would be enough to “prove” that the recipient of such posts and messages “feared” the threat was real.
Another offense has to do with spreading information that internet users “know” is false, again, in order to cause emotional or physical harm to their “likely audience.” The proposed bill is littered with equally vague and subjective definitions of future crimes that could be hard to prove in a court of law.
The Department for Culture, Media & Sport incorporated the “likely psychological harm” as a basis for the new legislation, as recommended by the Law Commission, and will include them in the bill once it is forwarded to the UK government, which should approve it before it hits parliament in November.
Another recommendation that has been accepted is to make online “pile-ons” a crime – i.e., several users sending trolling messages perceived by the recipient as harassing, while one example a government source gave to the media of what it means to “knowingly” spread false information would be if a vaccine skeptic or a vaccine hesitant person speaks about their conviction – that is apparently automatically considered untrue, while the author is held responsible for “knowing” it.
The previous legislation that the Online Safety Bill looks to amend and adopt to what the government said is the digital age, focused on criminalizing factually indecent or grossly offensive content – rather than the “likely” effect and presumed intent.
Critics say these definitions of new criminal offenses are overly broad and subjective.