If I call someone a poopy-head on the internet, should I go to jail? "Yes", according to the Law Commission's new briefing on Harmful Digital Communications [PDF]. In addition to proposing some sensible measures, such as tweakign the Harassment, Human Rights, Privacy and Crimes Acts to make it clear that they apply to online communications, and requiring schools to have anti-bullying policies (which ought to be a total no-brainer), they are also recommending (to use TechLiberty's words):
The creation of a new criminal offence that targets digital communications which are "grossly offensive or of an indence, obscene or menacing character and which cause harm". Harm is said to include physical fear, humiliation, mental and emotional distress.So, humiliating or causing distress to someone online will be a criminal offence with a penalty of up to three months' imprisonment. Causing distress. Well, Colin Craig distresses me, with his bigotry. So does Judith Colins and her knee-jerk authoritarianism. And indeed, the Law Commission, with this idiocy. But I don't for a moment think any of them should end up in jail for it.
Its not a criminal offence to cause people mere humiliation or distress offline. We shouldn't let a bunch of scared old men turn it into a crime online. We have a Harassment Act already, which covers the legitimate restrictions on free speech in this area. There seems to be no good reason to go beyond it. The UK has such a law, and its already leading to horror stories; let's not make the same mistake here.
(I'll leave their other marvellous idea - the creation of a censorship tribunal to enable speedy takedowns of such humiliating and distressing material - for another day)