Danger Lurks Behind Our Computer Screens; LEGAL Recently, Lawyers in the United States Had to Deal with the First "Cyber-Bullying" Prosecution in Their Legal History. Susan Hall, of Cobbetts Says Harassment Laws in the United Kingdom Need to Be Altered to Keep Up with the Pace of Change Online

Article excerpt

Byline: Susan Hall

The recent case where a house wife 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 chat rooms 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 EUR100,000 (pounds 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. …