I was quoted in the Times recently in relation to a teenage 'cyberbully', Keeley Houghton, who was jailed and issued with a restraining order for bullying another teenage girl. The reporter asked me if this case marks a turning point in online bullying cases - here are my thoughts on the issue.
Without knowing the exact facts of the case, it seems to me that Houghton must have been prosecuted under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 ("the Act"), under which offenders can be sentenced for up to 6 months' improsonment.
It should be noted that the victim had "been victimised by Houghton for four years...and had previously suffered a physical assault as well as damage to her home." This would have been a significant factor in leading the judge to believe that Houghton had pursued a "course of conduct" which: (a) "amounts to harassment of another" under s.1(1) of the Act; and/or (b) "causes another to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against him" under s.4(1) of the Act.
For this reason, I don't think that this case marks a turning point in online harassment or cyberbullying cases. On the facts, there was a long prior course of conduct including assault and criminal damage against the victim. It would, of course, be different if a person were sentenced for using social networks to bully another person without having also bullied that person 'offline'. The wording of the Act does not preclude an offence being committed in such a scenario - but to my knowledge nobody has been imprisoned on that basis in the UK yet.
However, this case does underline the point that people do not have a carte blanche to behave online in a way that is unacceptable offline. It also demonstrates that courts will take threats and comments made through social networking sites very seriously. Needless to say, there have been numerous online defamation cases and even a revival of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 in a lawsuit against a blogger. With the explosion in UGC and social networking sites, it is likely that online harassment cases will likewise occur more frequently, whether in civil or criminal actions.
As we've seen from people's behaviour on the gamut of websites from Facebook to Secondlife, Mumsnet to Owlstalk, the online world follows the offline world in all things bad as well as good. At the same time, laws that were drafted pre-Web 2.0 are being stretched to cover all sorts of new online behaviours. Put another way, the same old laws are applied to cover the activities of the same old bullies in a new playground.
Unfortunately, as every playground has a bully, so social networking sites have spawned cyberbullying and this case shows that harassment laws are flexible enough to step in to protect the victims.
Laurence Kaye Solicitors