Apparently there is an average of 10 billion messages sent on Facebook and 500 million tweets sent every single day.
Given the sheer volume of people involved in this freedom of expression, it is inevitable that it would give rise to problems. One of the most serious and devastating emerging problems is Cyber-Bullying.
In short this is bullying some-one online or by mobile phone, where the bully’s actions are deliberate, hostile, and intended to harm.
It can be incessant and with ease the bully can remain anonymous while publishing their venom to a mass audience. It can cause catastrophic results.
So when does a bully break the law – the problem is that the law has not kept up with the speed of development of social media. In the real world, once reported, a crime can be easily identified as having been committed in a specific legal jurisdiction, governed by the laws of that jurisdiction. The worldwide nature of the web and the ease of remaining anonymous on line can make identifying the bully and the location of their crime difficult to action. An added complication is that the bully is often but not always minors.
In the wake, of an alarming increase in suicides, where cyber-bullying has been identified as a significant factor, the Irish Government has pointed to Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997, as the current law to fight cyber-bullying.
A brief look at that section in the act, refers to the offence of harassment:
Where harassment is defined as seriously interfering with a person’s peace and privacy or causing alarm, distress or harm to the person. A person found guilty on conviction on indictment, shall be liable to a fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years or to both.
For a successful conviction the harassment must be persistent, and that can be very difficult to prove in the virtual world, and could provide a readymade defence to avoid conviction. The Law Reform Commission – the legal Irish watchdog have been asked by the Government to review the laws on cyber-bullying, as part of its review of domestic violence laws.
For the time being there are some other acts that are relevant in Internet safety, namely the Data Protection Act 1988, and the Data Protection (Amendment) Act 2003, the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, and the Interception Act 1993, and Video Recordings Act 1989.
It is clear however that a hard hitting and tailor made law, is required to effectively deal with cyber bullying, with tough sanctions for those convicted, together with a comprehensive legal code governing online conduct.
It is unacceptable that in 2013, we continue to rely on an Act that was passed in 1997, when the social media was in its infancy, the law appears outmoded and ineffective and needs to play catch up fast.
In the meantime all Serious Issues should be reported, for more see www.hotline.ie, which is run by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI) supervised by the Department of Justice, Office for Internet Safety (OIS), in cooperation with An Garda Síochána .