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How to protect yourself from online harassment

Social media has exploded over the past decade with the internet enabling people to contact each other from all over the world instantly and often. Whilst the thriving nature of social media has brought numerous advantages, inevitably there have been some negative effects.

Indeed, there have been an increasing number of harassment allegations made following the surge in social networking. As a result of the pace with which social media has expanded throughout the world, lawyers are struggling to come to grips with just how to deal with harassment over the internet.

Protection from Harassment Act 1996

Claims for harassment in the UK are generally brought under the Protection from Harassment Act 1996 or the Public Order Act 1994. In order to show harassment a victim will have to demonstrate the alleged individual is causing harassment, alarm or distress by using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour.

Anybody who believes they are being harassed should contact the police and get legal advice from a solicitor.

In terms of punishing the individual alleged to have been harassing, the courts will generally impose a maximum six-month sentence on somebody whose harassment is deemed a nuisance. However, where the harassment leads to the victim fearing an act of violence, and that fear is deemed to be reasonable, the alleged harasser could face up to five years in prison.

Alternative claims

One should not forget that harassment is not the only legal route with which it may be possible to bring a claim against somebody for harassing behaviour over social media. Any sexual discrimination or racial discrimination over the internet will be just as actionable as discrimination outside of the internet.

Again, legal advice from a solicitor may help to learn which is the most appropriate route to take.

Proving harassment

The most obvious problem with online harassment is the difficulty in proving who the harasser is, and therefore stopping them. The pace with which social media has expanded means that the police do not have the kind of equipment required on a routine basis to track down the group or individual involved.

There is, of course, the additional problem that the internet makes it far easier for somebody to hide their identity and to harass from several different places. Often, therefore, if the police do not anticipate an act of violence, their desire to get involved will often be low given the limitations they have in trying to trace the individual.

Avoiding harassment

Anybody who is being harassed is therefore recommended to take practical steps to avoid the chances that the harasser can continue to contact them. Simple steps such as changing email address, removing personal information from social networking sites and changing passwords can all assist greatly. Indeed, a common practical step will also involve increasing the security settings on the individual’s computer or purchasing a more protective security system.

Despite the difficulties involved, if you are being harassed you should report the problem to the police. It may also be of assistance to get legal advice from a solicitor who may be able to identify a particular action to take, unique to your circumstances.

Most practically though, it is strongly recommended that people are careful who they interact with on social media networks and what personal information they give away. 

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