What are your legal rights if you’re being bullied online? banner


What are your legal rights if you’re being bullied online?

  • Posted on

The online community has become a quagmire of spite, with personal attacks seen as perfectly acceptable for any reason. Advice for anyone who wants to avoid losing all faith in the human condition could well be, "Don't read the comments!" Behind the anonymity of a keyboard and screen, it seems that some people have removed their moral filter, and engage in cyberbullying with a passion. It's become so bad that an increasing number of suicides and self-harming cases are being attributed to online bullying, especially among younger, more easily influenced users.

But who is responsible? Is it the platform owners and operators, who allow such hateful comments to go unchallenged? Or is it the individuals who post vile statements that range from attacks on someone's looks to encouraging people to go kill yourself', and all points in between? Here's a quick look at the various types of online bullying, and what you can do to tackle it.

The legal position on cyberbullying

As yet, there is no actual legal definition of cyberbullying in the UK. That makes it very difficult to actually take legal action unless the bullying could be regarded as defamation of character or libellous. If bullying involves actual physical threats, or the exposure of personal information such as an address or telephone number while encouraging others to use this information to harass or intimidate the victim, then the police will be more inclined to get involved.

There is, however, various legislation that can be applied to cyberbullying cases, and if cyberbullying involves identity theft, then the authorities can use the newly revised GDPR legislation to tackle the situation.

The brutal truth, though, is that it is very difficult to use the law as it currently stands to take on everyday cyberbullying, and the legal checks and balances only seem to be used to their fullest effect in headline-grabbing extreme cases.

The platform operators

By offering a public service, operators such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and SnapChat are obliged to provide a safe and secure environment for their users. In reality, the platforms are so vast that, even with an army of moderators taking down offensive comments and blocking cyberbullies on a daily basis, nasty, personal comments that could be regarded as cyberbullying can sit online for weeks. That's no comfort to the victim of an attack, and it can often seem like repeatedly reporting bullies just makes the situation worse.

However, reporting the problem is the only way you'll actually get any recourse from the platform operator for any form of online bullying. If you know the identity of the person carrying out the online attack, then it may be possible to use the UK's anti-stalking legislation, which has recently been updated to take into consideration cyberstalking, and you may have grounds to take out an injunction against an individual. If they are found in breach of this, then you may be able to take them to court.

Bear in mind, though, that if the individual is resident in another country then UK law will probably not be of any use.

The law is still struggling to keep up with the ever-changing online world. How we police that environment is going to come under increasing scrutiny in the years to come, so expect to see both national and international legislation coming in to try and curb the more extreme side of online bullying. However, for the moment, the best thing to do is block individuals using the platform settings, report them to the administrators of the platform, or, if all else fails and the situation escalates, talk to a solicitor specialising in cybercrime.

Jay Shah

Jay Shah is a Partner in our Criminal Defence Department and can be contacted on 01323 644222 or by email jsh@stephenrimmer.com

    Ask a question