Thousands of abusive electronic message cases reach court

Close up of smartphone Twitter button
Image caption Twitter handles 400 million tweets a day worldwide

More than 1,700 cases involving abusive messages sent online or via text message reached English and Welsh courts in 2012, the BBC has learned after a Freedom of Information request.

This is a 10% increase on the figures for 2011, according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Nearly 600 charges were brought between January and May 2013, the figures show.

The revelations come as police say they are investigating abusive tweets sent to MP Stella Creasy.

Under the Communications Act 2003, a person is guilty of an offence if they send "a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character" by means of an electronic communications network.

The CPS figures show that the number of cases fell between 2010 and 2011, from 1,637 to 1,537, then rose to 1,716 in 2012.

But the CPS could not tell the BBC how many individuals these charges related to nor how many resulted in a successful prosecution.

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Media captionMary Beard: 'I wasn't going to be terrorised" by troll

A CPS spokesperson said: "We cannot disaggregate offences data centrally to indicate the number of people prosecuted or the outcome of the prosecution proceeding - it is often the case that a person is charged with more than one offence."

Reporting abuse

Ms Creasy received the abusive tweets after publicly backing feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who was also targeted by Twitter "trolls" following her campaign to have a woman featured on a UK banknote.

Both Ms Criado-Perez and Ms Creasy received rape and death threats via Twitter.

On Monday, Del Harvey, Twitter's senior director of trust and safety, blogged that the micro-messaging platform would extend the "report tweet" function, already available on its iPhone app, to Android phones and desktops.

But she did not give a timescale for the change.

Pressure has been building on Twitter to do more to combat abusive messages sent via the platform.

On Monday, Andy Trotter, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' communications advisory group told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: "They need to take responsibility as do the other platforms to deal with this at source and make sure these things do not carry on.

"They need to make it easier for victims to report these matters and, from a police perspective, they need to know that they can report these things to us."

A petition calling for Twitter to add a "report abuse" button to its service had attracted more than 71,000 supporters on Tuesday morning.

But while Twitter's rules "explicitly bar direct, specific threats of violence against others", the company says "manually reviewing every Tweet is not possible due to Twitter's global reach and level of activity".

The question for Twitter is how, having made it easier for people to report abusive tweets, it will cope with the potential flood of reports.

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