Rise in arrests for online abuse across Northern Ireland

More arrests for online abuse were made by police in Northern Ireland last year, new figures show.

More arrests for online abuse were made by police in Northern Ireland last year, new figures show.

Online abuse has been in the spotlight in recent years, particularly following high-profile cases of harassment of celebrities and sportspeople.

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 the Police Service of Northern Ireland, obtained by RADAR through a freedom of information request, show 577 arrests were made for section 127 offences in 2021.

This was up 34% from 430 the year before.

In some cases, individuals may be arrested for more than one offence, meaning an arrest could appear multiple times in these figures.

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.

A further seven arrests were made by the Police Service of Northern Ireland last year under the Malicious Communications Act.

Police forces across the UK were asked to provide data on arrests and crime outcomes for both offences in recent years.

Last year, the Law Commission, a body which keeps the law of England and Wales under review, labelled both offences as outdated and called for them to be replaced.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 will cover the whole of the UK and 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 UK Government's 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.