MORE arrests were made by Gloucestershire Constabulary for malicious communications last year, new figures show.
Online abuse and malicious behaviour has been in the spotlight in recent years, particularly following high-profile events such as England’s European Championship loss last year, which saw racist abuse directed at some players on social media.
In the UK, two main offences cover online abuse – section 127 offences, which specifically relate to digital technology, and section one of the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which also covers ‘old-fashioned’ ways of communicating, such as letters and phone calls, but is often used for online harassment.
Figures from Gloucestershire Constabulary, obtained by RADAR through a freedom of information request, show 86 arrests were made under the broad category of ‘malicious communications’ in 2021 – up from 70 the year before.
The force said that while it did not assign a particular offence to the arrest, there were 70 charges across both offences last year – down from 80 the year before.
In 2021, 21 of these charges were for section 127 offences, and 49 for section one of the Malicious Communications Act.
Glitch, a charity working to end online abuse, called the issue a huge problem that has “only become more urgent in recent years”.
Gabriela de Oliveira, head of policy, research and campaigns at the charity, said that women and marginalised groups in particular are “paying the price” for a lack of action from tech companies on the issue.
A separate freedom of information request made to the Crown Prosecution Service shows prosecutions across both offences combined have surged across England and Wales, with 7,000 charges resulting in court hearings in 2021 – an increase of 27% on the year before.
This rise has been driven by an increase in prosecutions under the Malicious Communications Act – there were 4,435 in 2021, up from 3,437 in 2020.
The number of prosecutions for section 127 offences across England and Wales has fallen over the past decade – while it rose 24% to 2,544 in 2021, in 2012 it was responsible for 2,957 appearances in court.
The same figures show there were 68 prosecutions across both offences in Gloucestershire in 2021 – the highest number since at least 2005, when figures are first available.
In 2021, 26 prosecutions were for section 127 offences, and 42 were for malicious communications.
The CPS was asked how many charges had been made for the two offences since the introduction of section 127 in 2003, while police forces were asked to provide data on arrests and crime outcomes.
Last year, the Law Commission, a body which keeps the law of England and Wales under review, labelled both offences as outdated and called for them to be replaced.
In February, the Government committed to taking on the commission’s recommendations in its Online Safety Bill, which is currently being discussed by Parliament.
Tony Neate, CEO at Get Safe Online, which provides advice on using the internet responsibly, said that while the Online Safety Bill may address some of these issues, tech companies also need to improve how they moderate content.
“Our advice with online abuse is consistent: Ignore, report and whatever you do, don’t respond,” he added.
The Online Safety Bill is also set to impose penalties on social media companies that do not clamp down on abuse on their platforms.
A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said the bill would lead to a “major improvement” in people’s online safety.
“It will force social media firms to take action on the vile abuse people face on their platforms or face heavy fines,” they said.