UK moves towards longer jail terms for trolls

Prison sentences for online harassment may get longer in England and Wales, after the British justice secretary backed an amendment to a legislative bill that’s going through Parliament.

As it stands, trolling or harassing people over the internet or the phone can earn the abuser a jail term of up to six months, under the Malicious Communications Act. On Monday, Member of Parliament (MP) Angie Bray tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill that would make it possible for such offenses to be tried at a crown court rather than a magistrates’ court, with sentences having a new maximum of two years.

On Tuesday, according to the London Evening Standard, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling threw his weight behind the change, saying it would make existing rules “as robust as possible.” The amendment will be discussed on Thursday in an MPs’ committee meeting. The bill may become law by the end of this year.

The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill would also make it a criminal offense for jurors to research the cases in which they are serving on the internet, or to post anything about the proceedings on social networks.

This week’s amendment follows a string of high-profile trolling episodes in the U.K., notably that of journalist Caroline Criado-Perez, who was repeatedly threatened with rape (two trolls received 8-week sentences), and the schoolgirl Hannah Smith, whose suicide was widely (and incorrectly) attributed to online trolling.

The issue of what does and doesn’t constitute illegal trolling has popped up repeatedly in the U.K., which does not have strong free speech laws. At the end of 2012 the director of public prosecutions issued guidelines to remind the courts that, just because a comment is distasteful or offensive, that doesn’t mean it warrants a prosecution.