How Far Can The Law Control Social Media?

The open nature of the Internet makes it a bewildering place for newcomers. Back in 2009, security breaches and illegal activities led computer giant IBM to state “that the Internet has finally taken on the characteristics of the Wild West where no one is to be trusted.”

What are law enforcement agencies dealing with?

Just like the Wild West, criminals have found the Internet a perfect vehicle for committing all manner of crimes. These techniques have often existed for centuries, but the Internet offers a new way of finding and exploiting victims.

Here are the top three issues facing US lawmakers regarding the Internet.

1. Fraud, theft and criminal damage

Email has given fraudsters unprecedented access to more victims than ever before. With the click of a button, they can send thousands of emails designed to trick people into revealing personal details that can then be used for identity theft, bank fraud or extortion.

Computer viruses are regarded almost as an operational hazard of owning a computer. But they are designed to damage your computer, steal your data and cause general havoc. The offline equivalents would be stealing and criminal damage, which are clearly illegal; and the same goes for computer viruses.

Finally, there are hackers, people who deliberately try to break into computer systems. Again, the intention is usually to steal data, money, or to cause malicious damage.

2. Pornography

The US Government runs an agency dedicated to protecting children from Internet predators. The FBI works to identify and arrest paedophiles, as well as tracking and breaking child pornography rings.

There are also issues surrounding other “adult” pornography, which frequently breaches US publishing laws. Of a lower priority, the Police are still duty bound to investigate crimes reported to them.

3. Crimes against the person

Many people believe that the Internet is the ultimate forum for “free speech”. But some abuse the privilege making statements which are defamatory, slanderous or which breach hate speech laws.

Sometimes these personal attacks are apparently motiveless, leading to an online behaviour known as “trolling“. Police report that rates of cyberbullying increased by 400% between 2007 and 2011, for instance.

As crime prevention minister Jeremy Browne said in an interview, “What is illegal offline is illegal online. People should not be able to use social media to post anonymous abusive or threatening comments without facing any consequences.”

What is the problem?

As more and more of our daily interactions shift to online channels, the police face an increasingly difficult task maintaining law and order. Among the many hurdles they face are:


Internet and computer technologies continue to develop at an incredible rate. However, the police have neither the time nor the resources to stay on top of every new development.

The creation of laws to prosecute new crimes also takes time often several years. Until the law is passed, Police are often powerless to take proper action until the damage has been done and the criminal has long gone.


Users of chatrooms, forums and social media are afforded some level of anonymity, making it hard for police to unmask the perpetrators of online crime. Electronic detective work can usually identify online criminals in the end, but the process is slow and time-consuming.

There is an added element of difficulty when the crime has taken place on a website that operates from countries outside the US. In this instance, the police generally have to rely on the goodwill of the website operator to get the information they need to proceed to prosecution, which is not always forthcoming.


Solving crime can be a painstaking process at the best of times. However, cybercrime often requires liaison between different police forces and departments, the courts and Internet service providers. These third parties often operate their own bureaucracies, making it even harder to bring a case to resolution. Some are even deliberately obstructive because their operating ideologies are distinctly anti-police.

International law

When the crime takes place using a service from another country, issues of jurisdiction can further confuse matters. If a British person is cyberbullied by an American on a website run from Russia, there are three different national laws in effect. Even more confusingly, what is illegal here in the US may be perfectly legal in Russia, making a successful prosecution very difficult, if not unlikely.

Public sentiment

Despite the many potential problems presented by criminals on the Internet, proposals to prevent criminal activity are often opposed. Plans for an opt-out pornography filter (which would have required US internet users to register, or access to adult material would be blocked automatically) were overturned in 2012 following a vigorous campaign suggesting that such a filter was against freedom of speech laws.

Any proposed law which is believed to potentially limit online activities tends to come under similar pressure, making it very difficult to effectively limit loopholes exploited by criminals.

What can we expect in future?

Although the justice system is struggling to keep up with cybercrime, there is no suggestion it has given up. In the future we can expect to see:

More prosecutions

The surge in online defamation complaints to police has generated a similar increase in prosecutions. There is not yet any sign of a slow-down in reports, either.

As cybercrime becomes more common, police are dedicating more time and resources to detecting it. Specialist officers have the skills and expertise required to successfully prosecute more cybercrime cases than ever before.

More civil cases

Where undesirable activities online fall outside criminal law, people are still free to launch civil cases. The recent Twitter case involving a high profile politician being incorrectly named as a paedophile has resulted in dozens of people being sued for libel.

The number of similar cases will undoubtedly rise as people continue to seek damages for untrue or hurtful allegations that are posted on other social media sites.

New laws

The scams and tricks used by cybercriminals are constantly evolving. The United States legal system will also have to adapt to face these new challenges with relevant and updated legislation.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke unveiled new plans to exclude websites from prosecution where their users were guilty of libel if they pass on the troll’s identity. Should the website choose to protect the troll’s identity, the operator will be held responsible for hosting the libelous material. This plan should become law within the coming months.

Because of the global nature of the Internet, there will also be increasing cooperation between nation states, particularly those who are members of the European Union. The Budapest Convention encourages a joined-up approach to tackling and prosecuting international crime, and the membership continues to grow.

So the Internet will always remain lawless?

Currently the law seems relatively powerless to combat cybercrime effectively. While it is true that the police are always playing catch-up with cybercriminals, they are actively working to increase protection for the public by dedicating more resources to tackling them.

The legal system is also trying to increase protection for the public, but the creation of legislation is a slow and arduous process. However, there is a clear intention to tackle and prevent crime across government.

So can the law effectively police the Internet? Arguably, the answer has to be ‘yes’, because we already have laws to address many of the crimes committed online. Just as hackers will try and steal your bank account details on the Internet, so too will a pickpocket in the high street. The law does not completely prevent crime, but it does give the victim an avenue of redress.

The best advice for staying safe online remains use your common sense. Do this, and you stand a very good chance of staying out of the grasp of dedicated criminals while using the Internet.