No new laws are needed to deal with crimes committed using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, according to peers.

No new laws are needed to deal with crimes committed using social media, according to peers.

The ‘tentative’ conclusion of the House of Lords communications committee, set up in June, is that the criminal law, almost entirely enacted before the invention of Twitter and Facebook, is ‘generally appropriate’ for the prosecution of offences committed using social media. 

The report considered how social media has changed people’s behaviour and how the law deals with phenomena such as cyber-bullying, revenge pornography and trolling.

It takes as its starting point that ‘what is not an offence off-line should not be an offence online’.

Cyber-bullying and trolling, says the report, are adequately dealt with by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Malicious Communications Act 1998.

Revenge porn, it suggests, ‘deserves further consideration’ and calls for clarification from the director of public prosecutions on the circumstances in which an indecent communication ‘could and should’ be subject to prosecution.

While some aspects of the current statute law might be ‘adjusted', the committee is 'not persuaded that it is necessary to create a new set of offences specifically for acts committed using the social media and other information technology'.

Neither does it recommend codifying or consolidating all offences that can be committed using social media.

The committee acknowledges that the issue of whether website operators should have to establish the identity of people opening accounts is a ‘fraught question’.

‘Would this be an undesirably chilling step towards tyranny, or merely a necessary administrative step to ensure that law enforcement agencies can properly investigate crime?’ it asks. 

Anonymity, it notes, enables human rights workers and journalists in conflict areas to communicate with the outside world, but it can also be used as a ‘shield’ for offenders.

The committee comes down of the side of a requirement for identity. ‘If the behaviour which is currently criminal is to remain criminal and also capable of prosecution, we consider that it would be proportionate to require the operators of websites first to establish the identity of people opening accounts’.

But, it accepts that after registering, posters should be able use websites using pseudonyms or anonymously. ‘There is little point in criminalising certain behaviour and at the same time legitimately making that same behaviour impossible to detect,’ it says.

Peers encourage website operators such as Facebook and Twitter to speed up requests for identification of users made by law enforcement agencies, using powers already granted by parliament.

The report also calls for better statistics on the balance of offences committed online and by traditional means, as well as the number of offences that are actually reported.

In reaching its conclusion the committee cited written evidence from criminal barristers John Cooper QC of London’s 25 Bedford Row who represented the Robin Hood airport tweeter whose conviction in May 2010 for posting a joke bomb-threat was overturned. 

Cooper told peers: ‘The vast majority of people who use the social media are like society. The vast majority are decent, intelligent, inspiring people. The problem comes with a small minority, as in society, who spoil it for everyone else’.

Committee chair Lord Best said: ‘34 million people in the UK use Facebook. And 15 million in the UK use Twitter, contributing to the 500 million tweets that are sent a day. And although most of these range from the informative to the forgettable, people need to remember that what is criminal off-line is also criminal online.’

Read the full report here.