How far can the law protect against online abuse?

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The internet is a weird world which suffers from the bizarre dual nature of being wonderful and life-changing and at times hideous, threatening and vile.

Evidence of the latter has been seen in recent weeks with certain high profile cases, such as that of feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez who led a petition to see a woman’s face feature on the bank notes of the future.

Her efforts were greeted with a tirade of abuse and rape threats on Twitter.

In a separate case, the news has been full of the tragedy involving Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire who was found hanged. Claims were made that she had been bullied on a social networking site.

The sad fact is that the internet offers a platform on which social network users can sit behind their computer screen, hidden behind a veil of anonymity with an online moniker, and abuse, threaten and torment other users.

Prime Minister David Cameron was reported to have said that people should boycott sites prone to cyberbullying to prevent any more young people taking their own lives.

But does legislation need to go further to protect internet users against online threats and abuse?

Detective Sergeant Carole Walton of Wellingborough CID is also Northamptonshire Police’s advisor on online offending.

She said many people using the internet fall into the trap of failing to report certain abuse as they feel it is not part of the real world. She believes some legislation needs to go further to protect users.

She said: “Some guidelines came in recently that, when there are specific threats or anything with a racist element to it, then police action would be taken.

“When it is name calling, tit for tat, there might not be police action. I do know that when there are high profile cases, more are brought to our attention as people think ‘I better contact the police’.

“The whole online world is looked at by some people as not real.

“There are older people who will get others to perform sexual acts. We have spoken to younger people and they have said, ‘I did not think it was real as it was just on the computer’.

“I think we could improve on legislation and do more to improve the understanding that if it is happening online it is still real and still needs to be reported.”

According to Det Sgt Walton, crime with an online element is something Northamptonshire Police deal with every day.

“It is almost becoming commonplace,” she said.

“I don’t have figures but it is a daily occurrence now, with young people, but also with adults, particularly with fraudulent activity.

“An adult might have been contacted by someone who then blackmails them online.

“Blackmail, with an online element is becoming more and more common. People don’t report it as they don’t recognise it until after a lot of money has been exchanged and then they report it.

“Lots of other crimes are cropping up with online elements. With the blackmail, what we have become aware of is when a person has gone on to adult sites, been engaging with people online and then that person will claim to be an underage person and threaten them that if they don’t send them money they will tell the police about them.

“There are also scams to do with dating sites in which the person they are chatting to starts getting them to send money. They person is preying on their vulnerability. I have seen a few cases of that.”

Det Sgt Walton fears that it still does not occur to some people to report certain online activity.

She said: “I think sometimes people are embarrassed and there is that element of ‘it is online, it is not real, that can’t be happening’.”

“The big difficulty for us is if someone is in another country. It can be quite frustrating if an offender is in another country as there is only so much information you can get in this country, then you have to pass it on to the other country and countries have boundaries and different legislations. Ideally we would have the same legislation and that would make information sharing so much easier.”

“Criminals don’t see any boundaries and a computer means that people can pretty much do whatever they want.

“You pass it on and hope that country has the legislation to deal with it.”

Keeping safe online...

“As a society we need to connect ourselves with online safety,” Det Sgt Carole Walton explained.

In an age in which so many people are now so computer literate, it is shocking that some still fail to take simple steps to protect themselves online, leaving themselves prone to cases of blackmail, abuse or financial scams by unscrupulous criminals.

Det Sgt Walton had some advice to offer on precedures internet users can adopt to keep safe when surfing the web.

She said: “I would say contact with a person you don’t know should be taken with caution. Think, why does this person want to contact me?

“Anyone under 18 should not accept anyone in social networking they do not know in the real world.”

She continued: “Block people whenever you can, whenever someone comes at you with any kind of abuse. Don’t let them see you get upset, don’t let them see you emotional, remember to block, delete, report. Also report if you think a person is someone the police might be interested in for some reason.

“To keep your personal information safe, don’t give it out.”

She added that people should be wary about financial transactions. “If any money transaction is being carried out, think about whether it is with a trusted company? If not then don’t do it. Sit back and then think for a minute and ask if you would do it in the real world.”