Sentences for online hate crimes to match in-person offences

People convicted of online hate crimes are set to receive the same punishments as in-person offenses, under new plans announced by UK authorities today.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated that prosecutors will be instructed to pursue more serious penalties for offenders who carry out hateful and extremist abuse on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, said the spread of unchecked online hate can encourage the bigotry and hostility seen in the Charlottesville Nazi marches earlier this month.

"We should remember that there is a less visible frontline which is easily accessible to those in the UK who hold extreme views on race, religion, sexuality, gender and even disability," she wrote in The Guardian. "I refer to the online world where an increasing proportion of hate crime is now perpetrated."

"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."

The CPS has been increasing its prosecutions of hate crimes, with a record number of over 15,400 for 2015-16, and a conviction rate of more than 80%. However, online abuse and hate speech has a tendency of being taken less seriously than offences carried out in public.

Experts praised the move from the CPS, but warned that it could have unforeseen negative effects on free speech.

"It is quite right that people who hide behind social media to commit hate crime should be held accountable for their actions by the criminal justice system and clearly, internet companies should not be left to 'police' online speech," said the Open Rights Group's legal director, Myles Jackman.

"However, some offences employ highly subjective terms like 'grossly offensive' and 'obscene' which could have a severe chilling effect on the more unpalatable but legitimate areas of free speech, if interpreted strictly."

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count. 

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