The recent case where a housewife posed as a teenage boy, Josh Evans, to send hostile emails, prompting the suicide of a vulnerable 13-year-old girl, has brought about the first cyber-bullying prosecution in American history.
The internet, which encourages long-distance interaction, has made it incredibly easy for individuals to pass themselves off as other, completely different, people. With sites such as Second Life actively encouraging people to adopt fictional online personae, it is not surprising that more and more negative cases of second online identities are coming to light.
Worryingly, one charity which works to prevent suicide reports that there have been at least 17 deaths in Britain since 2001 involving chatrooms that give advice and actively encourage people to take their own lives; meanwhile, an entire language has been created to describe the deliberate action of provoking and bullying others online.
The Josh Evans case calls into question whether the UK’s legal system should be more specific in order to deal with an increasing number of online bullying cases.
In the US, Lori Drew, the woman who posed as Josh Evans, faces a relatively light sentence after being convicted of only three of seven cases brought against her. She will serve a maximum sentence of a year’s imprisonment and a $100,000 (£65,000) fine for each of her offences.
The law concerned was the American equivalent of the UK’s Computer Misuse Act of 1990. Doubts have been expressed as to whether this is a relevant legislation as it was directed predominately at hacking and similar cases.
If a case such as this came about in the UK, the offence would fall under the 1997 Prevention Of Harassment Act and the punishment could, in fact, be even more lenient. The Prevention Of Harassment Act is designed to cover a whole range of offences. It distinguishes between someone making a nuisance of themselves – with a sentence of a maximum of six months’ imprisonment and a fine – and someone who makes an individual fear an act of violence, which is considered a more serious offence and for which offenders are subject to a maximum of five years’ imprisonment.
However, given the problem of cyber-bullying, the term ‘violence’ should be clarified. It should include not only acts of physical violence, but also prolonged, emotionally violent, campaigns that cause mental distress. Appropriate punishments specific to online harassment should be considered for people caught cyberbullying and penalties equivalent to those that forbid people who have been caught hacking from using computers, should be introduced.
Social networking sites themselves also have to be aware of the law. Whilst it is fair to say that some, for example Live Journal, are proactive and have set up abuse teams and agreed strategies with law enforcement in order to allow officials to intervene if suicide is threatened, other sites are not so responsible.
The Evans case must be a wake-up call. As our lives become more complex with online profiles and second identities, we need more protection from the people who are out to damage reputations or harm people and it is the legal system that must initiate this.