The online community can be a quagmire of spite, with personal attacks seen as perfectly acceptable for any reason. Behind the anonymity of a keyboard and screen, it seems that some people have removed their moral filter. It has reached the point that an increasing number of suicides and self-harming cases are being attributed to online bullying, especially among younger, more easily influenced users.
But who is responsible? Is it the platform owners and operators, who allow such hateful comments to go unchallenged? Or is it the individuals who post vile statements that range from attacks on someone’s looks to encouraging people to ‘go kill yourself’, and all points in between? Karron Foot, Solicitor, looks at the various types of online bullying, and what you can do to tackle it.
The legal position on cyberbullying
As yet, there is no actual legal definition of cyberbullying in the UK. That makes it very difficult to actually take legal action unless the bullying could be regarded as defamation of character or libellous. If bullying involves actual physical threats, or the exposure of personal information such as an address or telephone number while encouraging others to use this information to harass or intimidate the victim, then the police will be more able to get involved.
There are, however, various pieces of legislation that can be applied to cyberbullying cases. For example, if cyberbullying involves identity theft, then the authorities can use the newly revised GDPR legislation to tackle the situation.
The unfortunate truth is it is very difficult to use the law as it currently stands to take on everyday cyberbullying. Some action may be possible under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, although this legislation does not specifically deal with cyberbullying.
The platform operators
By offering a public service, operators such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and SnapChat are obliged to provide a safe and secure environment for their users. In reality, the platforms are so vast that, even with an army of moderators taking down offensive comments and blocking cyberbullies on a daily basis, nasty, personal comments that could be regarded as cyberbullying can sit online for weeks.
However, reporting the problem is the only way you’ll actually get any recourse from the platform operator for any form of online bullying. If you know the identity of the person carrying out the online attack, then it may be possible to use the UK’s anti-stalking legislation, which has recently been updated to take into consideration cyberstalking, and you may have grounds to take out an injunction against an individual. If they are found in breach of this legislation, then you may be able to take them to court.
Bear in mind, if the individual is a non UK resident then UK law may not be of any use.
The law is still struggling to keep up with the ever-changing online world. How we police that environment is going to come under increasing scrutiny in the years to come, so expect to see both national and international legislation coming in to try and curb the more extreme side of online bullying. However, for the moment, the best thing to do is block individuals using the platform settings, report them to the administrators of the platform, or, if all else fails and the situation escalates, talk to a solicitor.
The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.