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Criminal law and online abuse

This step explores the role of criminal law and law enforcement agencies in addressing online abuse.
Person on laptop with justice symbols hovering over the keypad.
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This step explores the role of criminal law and law enforcement agencies in addressing online abuse.


Criminal law is one of the ways society seeks to combat anti-social behaviour including online abuse. It involves a crime, an act or omission that violates a law, which results in a punishment. In general terms, to be considered a crime, it must have been committed with some level of intent to do harm or to violate the law, alongside the actual act of violating the law. It is important to note that actual harm may not be necessary.

Criminal law is enforced by law enforcement agencies. Typically, an incident of online abuse will be reported to the law enforcement agency and/or to the online service provider (e.g. an internet intermediary or online platform) on which the incident occurred. Depending on the policies of the online service provider, they may in turn report the incident to law enforcement. Upon receiving a report of online abuse, law enforcement agencies may investigate the matter. This can involve gathering digital evidence, identifying the perpetrator, and assessing the impact of the abuse. If the investigation finds sufficient evidence, the case may be prosecuted under applicable laws. Penalties under criminal law are typically fines or terms of imprisonment. One additional point to note is that the specific procedures, threshold for evidence, and applicable laws can vary significantly between different jurisdictions.

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