U.K. to prosecute online hate crime as seriously as offline hate crime

The U.K. is cracking down on hate crime that is committed online, telling prosecutors to treat online hate crime the same as hate crime committed offline.

In the U.K., prosecutors were told to treat online hate crimes as seriously those that happen in the non-digital world. Some critics complain the change could silence free speech.

Today, the Crown Prosecution Service published a new policy on how it will prosecute online hate crimes. CPS said, “A hate crime is an offense where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or shows hostility towards the victim’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity.”

“In recognition of the growth of hate crime perpetrated using social media,” prosecutors were told “to treat online crime as seriously as offline offenses.” Online hate crime cases are to be treated with the same “robust and proactive approach used with offline offending.”

“Hate is hate,” Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, wrote in The Guardian. “When an ever greater amount of our time is spent online, it is only right that we do everything possible to ensure that people are protected from abuse that can now follow them everywhere via the screen of their smartphone or tablet. Whether shouted in their face on the street, daubed on a wall or tweeted into their living room, hateful abuse can have a devastating impact on victims.”

Some may criticize the new approach and guidance for prosecutors as heavy-handed. But we must remember the common thread that links online purveyors of hate with those who commit physical hate crimes. That is, the desire to undermine and instill fear in those they target, both individually and collectively.

The definition of hate crime, recognized by the CPS and police, is “any criminal offense which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice” towards the personal characteristics mentioned above. Of course, different types of offenses have differing consequences and, as online abuse by its nature cannot cause direct physical harm to a victim, it can never be considered or sentenced in the same way. But we know online hate crime has devastating effects.

Saunders claims there are “crucial provisions in law to ensure we do not stifle free speech,” but when browsing some of the comments attached to the social media campaign #HateCrimeMatters, it is clear that some critics are concerned the change in policy will impact free speech. More than one tweeter suggested the change is like being ruled by the thought police.

What one person perceives to be an online hate crime “motived by hostility or prejudice” might simply be considered offensive to another. Nevertheless, hate crime is reportedly on the rise even though it is believed that many victims do not come forward. Last year, there were over 15,000 hate crime prosecutions in the U.K.

The old way failed some victims of online abuse, but the revised policy by CPS covers the following “strands of hate crime: racist and religious; disability; and homophobic, biphobic and transphobic.”

CPS hopes more victims of online hate crime will be encouraged to come forward now that prosecutors will press courts to impose harsher sentences. Prosecutors, however, may make exceptions for children who do not fully comprehend that something published online could be a hate crime.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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