Reform of the Communications Offences

Current project status

  • Initiation: Could include discussing scope and terms of reference with lead Government Department
  • Pre-consultation: Could include approaching interest groups and specialists, producing scoping and issues papers, finalising terms of project
  • Consultation: Likely to include consultation events and paper, making provisional proposals for comment
  • Policy development: Will include analysis of consultation responses. Could include further issues papers and consultation on draft Bill
  • Reported: Usually recommendations for law reform but can be advice to government, scoping report or other recommendations

Proposing reforms of the communications offences, including the glorification of violent crime and self-harm. This project is underway and we aim to publish a Consultation Paper in 2020.

Our earlier work on Abusive and Offensive Online Communications can be found here.

Contact us here: online-comms@lawcommission.gov.uk

The problem

The internet offers extraordinary new opportunities to communicate with one other in new ways and on an unprecedented scale. These remarkable changes have been accompanied by growing incidents of abusive and offensive communication online. The criminal law – much of it predating the internet and social media – has struggled to keep pace.

The criminal laws that most directly address online communications (what we call the “communications offences” in section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and section 127 of the Communications Act 2003) are overlapping, ambiguous and can be unclear for online users, technology companies and law enforcement agencies alike. It is, for example, an offence to send a “grossly offensive” or “indecent” communication, but it is difficult to know exactly what those terms mean or where the line is crossed from a merely “offensive” communication into a message which may amount to criminal conduct. Some behaviours – such as when a group of people coordinate to “pile on” harassment to an individual online – are not specifically addressed by the communications offences, and it is difficult to apply other existing criminal offences that were not created with the online world in mind.

The project

In November 2018 we published our Scoping Report on Abusive and Offensive Online Communications as part of Phase 1 of this project. This report reviewed the existing criminal law as it related to online abuse and we made a number of recommendations, including that:

  • the communications offences under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 should be reformed to ensure that they are clear and understandable and provide certainty to online users and enforcement agencies;
  • as part of the reform of communications offences, the meaning of “obscene” and “indecent” should be reviewed, and further consideration should be given to the meaning of the terms “publish”, “display”, “possession” and “public place” under the applicable offences;
  • in addition to reform of the communications offences, there should be a review to consider whether coordinated harassment by groups of people online could be more effectively addressed by the criminal law; and
  • the glorification of violent crime online and the encouragement of self-harm online are issues should be considered in the context of the review of communications offences.

In its White Paper published in April 2019, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport welcomed the Law Commission’s recommendations and announced that the Law Commission will immediately start work on Phase 2 of the project.

The Law Commission will also, as an extension to this project, consider how the criminal law can address coordinated harassment by groups of people online.

The terms of reference for the review

  1. To recommend reform of the criminal law relating to abusive and offensive online communications, following a period of public consultation. This follows on from the Law Commission’s review of the current law published in November 2018.
  2. The project will cover:
    1. Reform and potential rationalisation of the current communications offences as they relate to online communication, with the aim of achieving a coherent set of offences that ensure online users are adequately protected by the criminal law.
    2. Where necessary, consideration of the meaning of “obscene”, “grossly offensive”, and “indecent”, as well as the definitions of “publish”, “display”, “possession”, and “public place” and of how we can best achieve clarity and certainty of the law for people communicating online.
    3. Consideration of online communications which amount to the glorification of self-harm and of violent crime and how these might be addressed in the context of any reform of the communication offences.
  1. In addressing the topics above, the Commission will be mindful to ensure that any recommendations for reform do not create incoherence or gaps in the criminal law as it relates to abusive and offensive communication offline.
  2. The Law Commission will also conduct a review to consider whether coordinated harassment by groups of people online could be more effectively addressed by the criminal law. This work on group harassment will form an extension of the online communications project.

Topics not in scope of this project

The following areas are outside the scope of this project:

  1. terrorist offences committed online;
  2. child sexual exploitation; and
  3. platform liability.

Any recommendations will therefore not address these topics.

Related projects

The Law Commission will also, as part of Phase 2 of this project, be undertaking a review of the law relating to the taking, making and sharing of intimate images between adults without consent. For more information on that project, please click here.

The Law Commission is also currently undertaking a review of the adequacy and parity of protection offered by the law relating to Hate Crime and making recommendations for its reform. For more information on this project, please click here.

Contacting the Commission

If you would like to be kept up to date with this project’s stakeholder events and consultation, please contact the Law Commission on online-comms@lawcommission.gov.uk and we will add you to our mailing list.

We would also welcome the opportunity to meet you or the organisation you represent. Please get in touch and we will respond to your email as soon as possible. We will be organising a full programme of meetings and events in the coming months.

Project details

Area of law

Criminal law

Commissioner

Professor David Ormerod QC