Government to launch inquiry into 'outdated' cyberstalking laws

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The Independent Online

The government is to launch an investigation into the growing problem of cyberstalking, The Independent has learnt.

The cross-party crackdown will tackle the country's "outdated" legislation on internet harassment, which includes no legal definition of "stalking".

The inquiry will be conducted by the Justice Select Committee, chaired by the Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd. It was prompted by a flurry of recent cases in which stalkers have used texts, tweets, chatrooms and sites such as Facebook to intimidate their victims – sometimes with tragic consequences.

"Around one in five people will experience stalking in the UK in their lifetime and unfortunately what we are now seeing is a growing trend in 'cyberstalking'," Mr Llwyd told The Independent.

Cyberstalkers can currently be charged under the Protection from Harassment Act, which dates back to 1997 – long before the explosion of social networking. But the Act takes a broad approach to the crime of harassment, which it defines as "putting people in fear of violence", and carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison. There is no mention of stalking, nor its online equivalent.

"Harassment tends to focus on individuals and campaigns tend to be shorter-lived," said Jennifer Perry, of the Network for Surviving Stalking. "But stalking is obsessive.

"Stalkers will spend hours every single day trying to contact their victim. But they will also contact their friends, colleagues and family. And Facebook and similar sites provide the perfect portal to do this."

The Computer Misuse Act of 1990 covers elements of online harassment, but campaigners say it does not go far enough to protect victims.

The investigation comes as Ian Puddick, a plumber, was cleared yesterday of harassing his wife's lover over the internet after he tweeted, blogged and posted videos online. He was enraged by his spouse's 10-year relationship with the City director Timothy Haynes.

In 2010, Tom Mullaney, 15, of Bournville, West Midlands, hanged himself after family and friends claimed he had been threatened with being attacked at school through Facebook.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers and an adviser to the inquiry, said: "There is an urgent need to review the stalking laws, for more training for criminal justice professionals and real support for victims. It is of concern that at best one in three complaints are recorded as crimes by the police and just 12 per cent then proceed to a disposal at court."

MPs joining the investigation include Roger Williams, leader of Welsh Liberal Democrat MPs, the senior Labour figures Barry Sheerman and John McDonnell, and the Tories Claire Perry and Robert Buckland.

Cases of Online Harassment

*Ian Puddick was in court this week for launching an internet campaign (through Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs) against Timothy Haynes after he discovered that the City broker had had a 10-year affair with his wife.

*Tom Mullaney, 15, hanged himself in May 2010 after he was threatened with being attacked at school through Facebook.

*On Wednesday this week the Royal Navy sailor Paul Sykes, 29, appeared in court after attempting to circumvent a harassment order by posting messages on his ex-wife's Facebook wall in a bid to win her back. The magistrates conditionally discharged Sykes for 12 months and told him to pay £85 in costs. He was also handed a 12-month restraining order preventing him from contacting his estranged wife.

*The Red Cross worker Angela Hoyt, 34, from Hatfield, Hertfordshire, was murdered in May by her former boyfriend Martin Collett after he allegedly posted obscene and hate-ridden material on her Facebook page, including an anti-Israeli video. He was found dead at a nearby railway line. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has begun an inquiry into the police response to Miss Hoyt's pleas for protection from Mr Collett.

Case Study

One victim, who gave her name only as Pauline, 50, told The Independent how she suffered an horrific campaign of internet stalking between November 2009 and March 2011.

Her stalker, whom she refused to name, used Twitter, Facebook and emails to direct all her friends, family and colleagues to four websites that he had specially created. The sites bore images of dead bodies onto which he had superimposed a picture of her face and a series of sinister poems penned to smear her name.

He also bombarded her with a barrage of threatening emails and tweets over the two-year period.

“It absolutely ruined my life,” said the mother of three. “The worst part is the lack of control I had over it. It affects you physically, financially, professionally and personally.

“I met the police six times, pushed from officer to officer, but they simply didn’t know how to handle it. They were completely lost. When they finally did arrest him, he was bailed and fled to France. I haven’t heard about it since.”