Many young people and indeed some staff use the Internet regularly without being aware that some of the activities they take part in are potentially illegal. The law is developing rapidly and changes occur frequently. Please note this section is designed to inform users of legal issues relevant to the use of communications, it is not professional advice.

Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.

This Act makes it a criminal offence to threaten people because of their faith, or to stir up religious hatred by displaying, publishing or distributing written material which is threatening. Other laws already protect people from threats based on their race, nationality or ethnic background.

Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 came into effect in April 2005, empowering courts to impose tougher sentences for offences motivated or aggravated by the victim’s sexual orientation in England and Wales.

Sexual Offences Act 2003.

It is an offence to take, permit to be taken, make, possess, show, distribute or advertise indecent images of children in the United Kingdom. A child for these purposes is anyone under the age of 18. Viewing an indecent image of a child on your computer means that you have made a digital image. An image of a child also covers pseudo-photographs (digitally collated or otherwise). This can include images taken by and distributed by the child themselves (often referred to as “Sexting”). A person convicted of such an offence may face up to 10 years in prison.

The offence of grooming is committed if you are over 18 and have communicated with a child under 16 at least twice (including by phone or using the Internet) it is an offence to meet them or travel to meet them anywhere in the world with the intention of committing a sexual offence.

Causing a child under 16 to watch a sexual act is illegal, including looking at images such as videos, photos or webcams, for your own gratification.

It is also an offence for a person in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with any person under 18, with whom they are in a position of trust. (Typically, teachers, social workers, health professionals, connexions staff etc fall in this category of trust).

Any sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 13 commits the offence of rape.

Communications Act 2003 (section 127).

Sending by means of the Internet a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or sending a false message by means of or persistently making use of the Internet for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety is guilty of an offence liable, on conviction, to imprisonment.

This wording is important because an offence is complete as soon as the message has been sent: there is no need to prove any intent or purpose.

Data Protection Act 1998.

The Act requires anyone who handles personal information to notify the Information Commissioner’s Office of the type of processing it administers, and must comply with important data protection principles when treating personal data relating to any living individual. The Act also grants individuals rights of access to their personal data, compensation and prevention of processing.

The Computer Misuse Act 1990 (sections 1 – 3).

Regardless of an individual’s motivation, the Act makes it a criminal offence to:

  • Gain access to computer files or software without permission (for example using someone else’s password to access files);
  • Gain unauthorised access, as above, in order to commit a further criminal act (such as fraud); or
  • Impair the operation of a computer or program (for example caused by viruses or denial of service attacks).

UK citizens or residents may be extradited to another country if they are suspected of committing any of the above offences.

Malicious Communications Act 1988 (section 1).

This legislation makes it a criminal offence to send an electronic message (email) that conveys indecent, grossly offensive, threatening material or information that is false; or is of an indecent or grossly offensive nature if the purpose was to cause a recipient to suffer distress or anxiety. This can include Racist, Xenophobic and Homophobic comments, messages etc.

Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988.

Copyright is the right to prevent others from copying or using his or her “work” without permission.

The material to which copyright may attach (known in the business as “work”) must be the author’s own creation and the result of some skill and judgement. It comes about when an individual expresses an idea in a tangible form. Works such as text, music, sound, film and programs all qualify for copyright protection. The author of the work is usually the copyright owner, but if it was created during the course of employment it belongs to the employer.

It is an infringement of copyright to copy all or a substantial part of anyone’s work without obtaining the author’s permission. Usually a licence associated with the work will allow a user to copy or use it for limited purposes. It is advisable always to read the terms of a licence before you copy or use someone else’s material.

It is also illegal to adapt or use software without a licence or in ways prohibited by the terms of the software licence.

Public Order Act 1986 (sections 17 – 29).

This Act makes it a criminal offence to stir up racial hatred by displaying, publishing or distributing written material which is threatening. Like the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 it also makes the possession of inflammatory material with a view of releasing it a criminal offence.

Obscene Publications Act 1959 and 1964.

Publishing an “obscene” article is a criminal offence. Publishing includes electronic transmission.

Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

A person must not pursue a course of conduct, which amounts to harassment of another, and which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.

A person whose course of conduct causes another to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against him is guilty of an offence if he knows or ought to know that his course of conduct will cause the other so to fear on each of those occasions.

This also includes incidents of Racism, Xenophobia and Homophobia.

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIP) regulates the interception of communications and makes it an offence to intercept or monitor communications without the consent of the parties involved in the communication. The RIP was enacted to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998.

The Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications) Regulations 2000, however, permit a degree of monitoring and record keeping, for example, to ensure communications are relevant to school activity or to investigate or detect unauthorised use of the network. Nevertheless, any monitoring is subject to informed consent, which means steps must have been taken to ensure that everyone who may use the system is informed that communications may be monitored.

Covert monitoring without informing users that surveillance is taking place risks breaching data protection and privacy legislation.

Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.

Section 63 offence to possess “extreme pornographic image”

63 (6) must be “grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise obscene”

63 (7) this includes images of “threats to a person life or injury to anus, breasts or genitals, sexual acts with a corpse or animal whether alive or dead” must also be “explicit and realistic”

Penalties can be up to 3 years imprisonment.

Education and Inspections Act 2006.

Education and Inspections Act 2006 outlines legal powers for schools which relate to Cyberbullying/Bullying:

  • Headteachers have the power “to such an extent as is reasonable” to regulate the conduct of pupils off site.
  • School staff are able to confiscate items such as mobile phones etc when they are being 
used to cause a disturbance in class or otherwise contravene the school behaviour/anti-bullying policy.
Last updated August 30, 2023