Convictions for crimes under a law in England used to prosecute internet “trolls” have increased eight-fold in a decade, official figures reveal.
Last year 1,209 people were found guilty of offences under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 – equivalent to three every day – compared with 143 in 2004.
It is a crime under the Act to send “by means of a public electronic communications network” a message or other material that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.
Previously little used, Section 127 has come to prominence in recent years following a string of high-profile cases of so-called trolling on social media sites. It can also cover phone calls and emails, and cases of “persistent misuse” that cause the victim annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety.
Statistics released by the UK’s Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show that 1,501 defendants were prosecuted under the law last year – including 70 juveniles – while another 685 were cautioned.
Of those convicted, 155 were jailed – compared with just seven a decade before. The average custodial sentence was 2.2 months.
Compared with the previous year there was an 18% increase in convictions under Section 127 but the number has dipped since a peak in 2012 when there were 1,423.
In 2013 then-director of public prosecutions (DPP) Keir Starmer QC issued guidance stating that users who post offensive material online must pass a “high threshold” before they are prosecuted.
The changes came in the wake of a case in which Paul Chambers was found guilty in May 2010 after joking on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire. His conviction was later overturned at the High Court.
Professor Lilian Edwards, director of the Centre for Internet Law and Policy at the University of Strathclyde, said the rise in prosecutions under Section 127 reflected the surge in use of social media.
“This was a relatively obscure provision before the internet. You would have been talking about poison telephone calls and there were relatively few of those,” she said.
“It is obviously related to what has happened with social media.”
She said two contrasting factors were having an impact on the number of cases in recent years.
“There is the DPP guidance which made prosecutions more carefully considered so that people were not being prosecuted for making jokes, for example.
“At the same time you have simply got more awareness that this is a serious problem both among the public and the police.”
The issue of online abuse came under scrutiny after cases such as the targeting of Labour MP Stella Creasy.
She spoke of the “misery” caused after a Twitter troll retweeted menacing posts threatening to rape her and branding her a “witch”.
Other victims of trolling have included campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Chloe Madeley, daughter of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan.
The MoJ figures also revealed a similar rise in the number of convictions under the Malicious Communications Act, which states that it is an offence to send a threatening, offensive or indecent letter, electronic communication or article with the intent to cause distress or anxiety.
Last year, 694 individuals were found guilty of offences under this Act – the highest number for at least a decade and more than 10 times higher than the 64 convictions recorded in 2004.
In October the British Government announced measures to increase the maximum sentence for trolls who are convicted under the Malicious Communications Act from six months to two years and extend the time limit for prosecutions under Section 127 to three years from the commission of offence.