The Crown Prosecution Service published on Thursday revised guidance for prosecutors on stalking and harassment, both online and offline.
The guidance features a dedicated section on cyber-stalking — including examples of how the internet can be used to harass victims — along with advice on appropriate sentencing. Those found harassing others through social-networking sites with an implied threat of violence could now face sentences of up to five years, it says.
The document was circulated to Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutors and police forces, Nazir Afzal, community liaison director and lead on stalking and harassment crimes at the CPS, told ZDNet UK on Friday. The guidance has also been published online so that members of the public and victims can access it.
"We appreciate that cyber-stalking is an additional weapon in the stalker's artillery. We've realised it destroys people. Every stranger is seen as a threat. You can't answer the phone, you can't go online," Afzal explained.
As part of the new guidance, offenders who received restraining orders would be banned from displaying "any material relating to the victim on social-networking sites including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter".
"We want a minimum standard in effect. We want all prosecutors around the country to understand what the issues are, work closer with the police and, as a consequence, use the powers that they have to get the court to sentence when convicted," Afzal told ZDNet UK.
The CPS expects the new guidance to receive "robust usage by the police and prosecutors", he said. Currently, the existing guidelines that prosecutors follow come from the Protection from Harassment Act, which was passed in 1997. The new guidance has been issued because since 1997 the usage of the internet has increased and new mediums have appeared, such as social-networking, Afzal said. Partially, the new guidance "is about keeping up", he said.
The guidance is explicit on how cyber-stalking can occur. It outlines how the internet can be used to locate personal information about a victim, communicate with them, survey them, steal their identity, damage their reputation and electronically sabotage them. Examples of electronic sabotage include spamming people, sending computing viruses, and deceiving other internet users into harassing or threatening them.
"We want [our prosecutors] to understand the issues — what people can do online, how they can compile information on the victim, how they can threaten and intimidate, sabotage people's accounts and take over accounts," Afzal explained.