The UK's Crown Prosecution Service has pledged to tackle online abuse with the same seriousness as it does hate crimes committed in the flesh.
Following public concern about the increasing amount of racist, anti-religious, homophobic and transphobic attacks on social media, the CPS has today (August 21) published a new set of policy documents on hate crime.
This includes revised legal guidance for prosecutors on how they should make decisions on criminal charges and handle cases in court.
The rules officially put online abuse on the same level as offline hate crimes – defined as an action motivated by hostility or prejudice – like shouting abuse at someone face-to-face.
They commit the CPS to prosecuting complaints about online material "with the same robust and proactive approach used with online offending".
Prosecutors are told to consider the effect on the wider community and whether to identify both the originators and the "amplifiers or disseminators".
Outlining the move in an opinion piece for The Guardian, Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, said that "hate is hate" and all forms of abuse should be treated harshly.
"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," she said.
"Whether shouted in their face on the street, daubed on a wall or tweeted into their living room, hateful abuse can have a devastating impact on victims."
Saunders denied that the new approach would infringe on free speech, and said that – although some people might consider it "heavy-handed" – there was a "common thread" that linked people who carry out online hate crimes with those who commit physical ones.
"That is, the desire to undermine and instil fear in those they target, both individually and collectively," she said, arguing that online hate speech could create an atmosphere in which real-life hate crimes increased.
However, she acknowledged that online abuse would never be able to cause physical harm to a person, and as such it would "never be considered or sentenced in the same way".
The policy guidance (PDF) also says that the CPS should recognise that children "may not appreciate the potential harm and seriousness of their communications".
Earlier this year, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport told The Reg that it was consulting with social media providers about a code of conduct that platforms should use to guide their response to online bullying.
The code was promised in the Digital Economy Act, which was rushed through parliament before this year's general election. ®