Fall in arrests for online abuse in Surrey
Online abuse has been in the spotlight in recent years, particularly following high-profile events such as England's European Championship loss last year, which saw racist abuse directed at some players on social media.
In the UK, two main offences cover online abuse – section 127 offences, which specifically relate to digital technology, and section one of the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which also covers 'old-fashioned' ways of communicating, such as letters and phone calls, but is often used for online harassment.
Figures from Surrey Police, obtained by RADAR through a freedom of information request, show 85 arrests were made for section 127 offences in 2021 – down from 87 the year before.
Surrey Police did not provide data on the number of arrests under the Malicious Communications Act.
In some cases, individuals may be arrested for more than one offence, meaning an arrest could appear multiple times in these figures.
A separate freedom of information request made to the Crown Prosecution Service shows prosecutions across both offences combined have surged across England and Wales, with 7,000 charges resulting in court hearings in 2021 – an increase of 27% on the year before.
Glitch, a charity working to end online abuse, called the issue a huge problem that has "only become more urgent in recent years".
Gabriela de Oliveira, head of policy, research and campaigns at the charity, said that women and marginalised groups in particular are "paying the price" for a lack of action from tech companies on the issue.
The national rise has been driven by an increase in prosecutions under the Malicious Communications Act – there were 4,435 in 2021, up from 3,437 in 2020.
The number of prosecutions for section 127 offences across England and Wales has fallen over the past decade – while it rose 24% to 2,544 in 2021, in 2012 it was responsible for 2,957 appearances in court.
The same figures show there were 76 prosecutions across both offences in Surrey in 2021 – a fall from 78 in 2020.
In 2021, 39 prosecutions were for section 127 offences, and 37 were for malicious communications.
The CPS was asked how many charges had been made for the two offences since the introduction of section 127 in 2003, while police forces were asked to provide data on arrests and crime outcomes.
Last year, the Law Commission, a body which keeps the law of England and Wales under review, labelled both offences as outdated and called for them to be replaced.
In February, the Government committed to taking on the commission's recommendations in its Online Safety Bill, which is currently being discussed by Parliament.
Tony Neate, CEO at Get Safe Online, which provides advice on using the internet responsibly, said that while the Online Safety Bill may address some of these issues, tech companies also need to improve how they moderate content.
"Our advice with online abuse is consistent: Ignore, report and whatever you do, don't respond," he added.
The Online Safety Bill is also set to impose penalties on social media companies that do not clamp down on abuse on their platforms.
A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said the bill would lead to a "major improvement" in people's online safety.
"It will force social media firms to take action on the vile abuse people face on their platforms or face heavy fines," they said.