If you or the person you are helping is in immediate danger please contact the police dialling 999

When should you go to the Police?

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Consider these questions

It might help to consider your responses to these questions when considering what has happened/ is happening online

  • Is someone in immediate danger?
  • Has a threat to someone’s life been made?
  • Has someone’s safety been compromised?
  • Is someone being forced to take part in sexual behaviours online?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above we would recommend contacting the police as an emergency. It is always best to contact the police by dialling 999 if you or a person you are helping is in immediate danger.

You can report other non-emergency situations (i.e. those that do not require an immediate police response) by dialling 101.

When does harmful content become criminal content?

It’s not always easy to determine when harmful content becomes criminal in nature. UK laws relating to online safety date back as far as the 1960’s and as such there isn’t always a clear set of criteria to meet when determining whether content is criminal or not.

In addition to this, interpretation of harmful behaviour online is subjective; what may be harmful to one person might not be considered an issue by someone else. This fact alone makes it harder to understand when exactly harmful behaviour crosses the threshold into criminal behaviour.

The eight types of harmful content we accept reports for are not always specific criminal offences in UK law. However, there are criminal laws that can apply in terms of harassment or threatening behaviour. For example should you receive threatening, obscene or repeated messages and fear for your safety, this is against the law and you should contact the police. Context should be taken into consideration and police determine their response on a case by case basis.

Laws about online behaviour

Many UK laws were created before communicating online became popular. Because of this it can be tricky to work out what is and isn’t covered by legislation. You’ll find information about UK laws that are relevant to online criminal behaviour by clicking on the buttons below. This might help you to work out whether you should contact the police:

Communications Act 2003

This Act covers all forms and types of public communication. With regards to comments online, it covers the sending of grossly offensive, obscene, menacing or indecent communications and any communication that causes needless anxiety or contains false accusation

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

This Act covers any form of harassment that has occurred ‘repeatedly’; in this instance, ‘repeatedly’ means on one or more occasions.

Section 2A and 4A of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Added in 2012, these sections prohibit behaviour that amounts to stalking (where an individual is fixated and/ or obsessed with someone) and stalking that involves fear of violence or serious alarm or distress, both of which can take place online.

Stalking Protection Act 2019

An act that allows chief police officers to apply for stalking protection orders to protect people from risks associated with stalking.

Malicious Communications Act 1988

This Act covers the sending of grossly offensive or threatening letters, electronic communications or any other form of message with the intention of causing harm, distress or anxiety.

Equality Act 2010

This Act states that it is against the law to discriminate against anyone on the ground of protected characteristics. These are age, disability, gender reassignment, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin), religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership and pregnancy and maternity.

Hate crimes and Hate Speech

If you commit a crime against someone because of a protected characteristic (i.e. age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership and pregnancy and maternity) this is classified as a hate crime. Hate speech is defined as expressions of hatred and threats directed at a person or a group of people on account of one or more protected characteristics. Hate crime/ hate speech should be reported to True Vision – www.report-it.org.uk  

Computer Misuse Act 1990

Legislation within this act makes it an offence to:

  • Hack a device or system 
  • Plant viruses, spyware and/ or malware on a device
  • Impersonate or steal someone else’s identity online (fraud).

This means that in certain situations, hacking a persons account and/ or pretending to be someone else online can be against the law.

Protection of Children Act 1978 and Criminal Justice Act 1988

Legislation within these acts state that the production, possession, storage and/ or sharing of indecent images (naked pictures) of children under the age of 18 is illegal.

Section 103 of the Digital Economy Act 2017

This requires online platforms (where interaction can take place) across the UK to follow a code of practice which sets out the actions they must take to protect individuals from bullying, intimidation and insulating behaviour online.

Part 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015

This makes it a criminal offence to engage in sexual communication with a child (under 16). This includes communication that relates to sexual activity and communication for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification (for example, grooming for sexual abuse). It closes a previous loophole which meant communication couldn’t be classified as ‘grooming’ until an arrangement to meet had been made.

Sexual Offences Act 2003

This sets out the key legislation relating to child sexual abuse in England and Wales and includes offences such as making a child engage in sexual activity, engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child and causing a child to watch a sexual act. The age of consent (the legal age when people can have sex) in the UK is 16 years old. The law is there to protect children from abuse or exploitation, rather than to prosecute under-16s who participate in mutually consenting sexual activity. The law says anyone under the age of 13 can never legally give consent.

Modern Slavery Act 2015

Modern slavery is a form of organised crime in which individuals, including children and young people, are treated as commodities and exploited for criminal gain. Online technologies facilitate the exploitation of a greater number of victims and advertising of their services across geographic boundaries.  The act outlines the criminal offences of human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.

Section 67 and 67A (Voyeurism Act 2019) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003

These sections refer to practice of gaining sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity and/ or placing equipment such as a camera or mobile phone beneath a person’s clothing to take a voyeuristic photograph without their permission.

Section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015

This refers to the offence of Intimate Image Abuse (colloquially known as Revenge Pornography). This is a law relating to images of adults (ie over 18s), making it illegal to share or make public sexually explicit images of someone else, without their consent, with the intent to cause distress.

Obscene Publications Act 1959

This act makes it an offence to publish obscene content and also to possess such content for gain (personal or other).

Whether something is considered obscene or not can be subjective but in this context, obscene content is defined by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as that which has a tendancy to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, to read, see or hear it. 

For avoidance of doubt, to deprave means to make morally bad, to pervert, to debase or to corrupt morally. To corrupt means to render morally unsound or rotten, to destroy the moral purity or chastity, to pervert or ruin good quality, to debase, to defile.

Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008

This refers to the offence of possessing extreme pornographic imagery. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) provides clear guidance on what is considered extreme under this legislation.

Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955

This act makes it an offence to publish content consisting of stories told in pictures (which can be accompanied by text) portraying crimes, violence, cruelty or incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature having a tendency to corrupt children.

Theft Act 1968

Legislation within this act makes it an offence to extort or blackmail someone (e.g. forcing someone to pay money to prevent the sharing of intimate images)  

Fraud Act 2006

This act makes it an offence to obtain something of value, usually money, by misleading or deceiving someone into believing something that the perpetrator knows to be false. It always includes a false statement, misrepresentation or deceitful conduct.

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Firearms Act 1968, Section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, Section 46 of the Serious Crime Act 2007

Legislation within these acts makes it an offence to sell, purchase, trade, or facilitate the trading of illegal goods online such as stolen credit card details, drugs and firearms.

Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015

Legislation outlining the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Prior to the introduction of this offence, case law indicated the difficulty in proving a pattern of behaviour amounting to harassment within an intimate relationship.

Part 6 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021

This part of the recently established Domestic Abuse Act details multiple new offences including but not limited to: controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship and threats to disclose private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress. It also means that consent to serious harm for sexual gratification can not be used as a defence in sexual assault cases.

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