The Crown Prosecution Service has released new guidelines to tackle so-called 'internet trolls' who harass, create derogatory hashtags or circulate doctored images to humiliate others.
The guidelines will apply in England and Wales in order to tackle abusive behaviour which take place online. The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders said that under the new rules, prosecutors would be able to tackle the behaviour in the same way as offences committed offline.
Speaking to the BBC, Ms Saunders said: "The internet's not an anonymous place where people can post without any consequences. People should think about their own conduct.
"If you are grossly abusive to people, if you are bullying or harassing people online, then we will prosecute in the same way as if you did it offline."
Addressing concerns that the move could be used to 'stifle free speech', she stressed that context would be very important in applying any of the new guidance: "Social media can be used to educate, entertain and enlighten, but there are also people who use it to bully, intimidate and harass.
"If you are offensive, the legislation would say you have to be grossly offensive, and that's quite a high test".
The new measures come after a report earlier this year found one in four teens suffered abuse online because of their identity.
Sean Joyce, Head of Regulatory and Criminal Justice at the law firm Stephensons, said: “At present, the courts have considerable experience in dealing with cases of harassment which takes place offline – such as sexual harassment, stalking and bullying. However, there is still no definitive guidance on how to deal with online harassment or so-called ‘trolling’.
“The new guidance issued by the CPS looks to bring online harassment in line with existing harassment guidance. This will mean that those found guilty of this offence will be treated in much the same way as someone who carries out this kind of abuse offline.
“This means the courts are likely to look for similar criteria before they can convict an internet troll for harassment. Firstly, the police and prosecutor must establish a ‘course of conduct’ – a verifiable pattern of behaviour that illustrates intent to harass.
“Secondly, there must be proof that the defendant knew - or should have known - their actions amounted to harassment. This is usually achieved prior to prosecution by issuing a Police Information Notice (PIN), signed by the defendant, which makes it clear to the person concerned that their behaviour is tantamount to harassment and that unless such actions stop they are in danger of prosecution.
“Existing harassment CPS guidance also allows the courts to pass stricter sentences in cases where the abuse is deemed to be of a violent or threatening nature. “Harassment with a threat of violence” is a term used to describe instances where harassment includes death threats, threats to injure or harm or threats of rape. Such threats are all too common online and on social media and those who make them should expect tough sentencing in response.”