British government considers punishment for causing ‘psychological harm’ through online abuse

Online “trolls” could face two years in prison for messages or content that cause “psychological harm” as the British government considers new legislation to combat online abuse. 

The Department for Culture, Media and Sports has accepted recommendations from the Law Commission to base crimes on “likely psychological harm” after a number of high-profile online abuse cases involving sports journalists and Premier League athletes. 

Ministers will consider a new law that will shift the focus from the content of a message to its effect, creating offenses of “threatening communications,” “knowingly false communication” and “pile-ons,” The Times reported. 

“Threatening communications,” for example, will target messages and posts that contain threats of harm intended to mainly create a state of fear for the victim, while “pile-ons” would address an incident in which a number of individuals gang up on someone with harassing messages on social media. 

The plan has been submitted to the cabinet for approval. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is reportedly planning to add the new offenses in a bill that will go to Parliament next month. 

“We are making our laws fit for the digital age,” a government spokesman told The Times. “Our comprehensive Online Safety Bill will make tech companies responsible for people’s safety and we are carefully considering the Law Commission’s recommendations on strengthening criminal offenses.”

This move is likely to be opposed by civil liberties and freedom of speech advocates.

David Davis, an ex-cabinet minister, claimed that assessing a message on the basis of impact is too subjective. 

Open Rights Group Executive Director Jim Killock said that the new offenses were too broad.

The new bill is just one of many proposals that will be presented to the government following a difficult year. Many were protesting against a range of issues, including Black Lives Matter and the announcement that a soccer Super League would be created. Many believed this would threaten the financial stability of sports in Europe. 

New laws around the limits of protests have been set out in a proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has cleared all review in the House of Commons and is currently under review in the House of Lords, according to a government website. 

The “Police Bill,” first proposed in March of this year, would expand police powers to limit protests, such as how long they last each day or how loud the protesters can be. The laws can be applied to a single protester and carry a fine up to £2,500 (around $3,400), according to the BBC.  

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