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Whereas content may be offensive in a non-specific way, harassment directs obscenities and derogatory comments at specific individuals focusing for example on gender, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation. This often occurs in chat rooms, through newsgroups, and by sending hate e-mail to interested parties (see cyber bullying, harassment by computer, stalking, and cyberstalking). In England, in a broader form than s43 Telecommunications Act 1984, s1 Malicious Communications Act 1988 makes it an offense to send an indecent, offensive or threatening letter, electronic communication or other article to another person. Now, s2 Protection from Harassment Act 1997 criminalizes a course of conduct amounting to harassment which the defendant knows, or ought to know, amounts to harassment of another. If a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other, the knowledge will be imputed to the defendant. Although harassment is not defined, s7 states that it includes causing alarm or distress, and conduct is defined as including speech in all its forms. In DPP v Collins (2006) 1 WLR 308 the defendant repeatedly telephoned the offices of his MP on a wide range of political matters. In conversations with employees at the office and on messages left on the telephone answering machine, he used racist terms to show the frustration he felt at the way in which his affairs were being handled. No-one was personally offended, but the staff became depressed. Charged under s127(1) Communications Act 2003, the magistrates found that the terms were offensive but that a reasonable person would not find them grossly offensive. To determine whether any message content is merely offensive or grossly offensive depended on their particular circumstances and context, i.e. in the wider society which is an open and just multi-racial society, the test of offensiveness was objective.

More problematic are deliberate attacks which amount to defamation although, in March 2006, Michael Keith-Smith became the first person to win damages from an individual internet user after she accused him of being a ‘sex offender’ and ‘racist blogger’ on a Yahoo! discussion site. She also claimed that his wife was a prostitute. The High Court judge decided that Tracy Williams, of Oldham, was « particularly abusive » and « her statements demonstrated that … she had no intention of stopping her libellous and defamatory behavior ». She was ordered to pay £10,000 in damages, plus £7,200 costs. In general, libel is not treated as a criminal matter except when it may provoke the person defamed into retaliatory violence (see cybersmearing as it affects business [1]. All forms of unsolicited e-mail and advertisements can also be considered to be forms of Internet harassment where the content is offensive or of an explicit sexual nature. Now termed spam, it has been criminalized in various countries[2]

Source : wikipedia