Stephen Kavanagh, in charge of national strategy on digital crime, says confidence of victims is being undermined
Kavanagh insisted the police were determined to improve how they deal with the ‘explosion’ of online abuse Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian
The police chief in charge of combating digital crime has admitted that an “inconsistent” approach from police forces to online abuse is undermining the confidence of victims.
The Essex chief constable, Stephen Kavanagh, the national police chiefs’ lead on digital crime, said those subjected to online harm deserved a better service from the police.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “They [victims] turn up at a police front counter or ring in and because of the variety of legislation and because of how quickly things are moving quite frankly they are getting an inconsistent response and that undermines their confidence.”
He insisted the police were determined to improve how they deal with the “explosion” of online abuse, including sexting, revenge pornography and racial and homophobic trolling.
Kavanagh said: “I don’t think there is one of the forces across the UK who think we have got this right at the moment. There is a real commitment from us to say ‘how do we get the officers with the skills, capabilities and tools to make sure victims coming forward are getting a better service?’”
He added: “Let’s give a better, more consistent service to victims of crime in the digital age.”
Also speaking on Today, Maria Miller, the Conservative former culture secretary, urged social media companies to stop treating the internet as the “wild west” where offences go unpunished.
She said: “At the moment they are allowing criminal activity, whether it is on Facebook, or on Twitter, or on any other platform, to go unchecked. They are still treating it as the wild west. It isn’t the wild west. We have great freedom of speech in this country and we should be sticking to that.
“I have to underline that it isn’t just the police force that needs to take action. We need to be tougher on Twitter, on Facebook, to ensure that they are operating in a way in which people are able to report offences more readily and that action is really taken. There have to be consequences and at the moment there aren’t consequences for people who take this sort of activity online.”
Kavanagh also repeated a call he made in the Guardian last month to consolidate outdated existing laws used to tackle online abuse.
He said: “The trouble is that if you are a victim you need to understand how you articulate to the police what’s concerning you. We have in the region of 30 pieces of legislation, some of them going back to the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861. The Computer Misuse Act is now 26 years old. That is not really helping investigators, the Crown Prosecution Service or victims to bring these people to justice.”
Kavanagh said it was not the role of police officers to be the arbiters of good taste online. But he revealed the police chiefs were working with the Crown Prosecution Service on possibly lowering the thresholds for what is seen as “inappropriate conversation”.
He said: “It’s a high threshold at the moment about the level of fear, about the level of harm that’s being conducted, and I think that causes concern for some victims groups.”
The Guardian reported on Monday that Google, Facebook and Twitter were talking to grassroots organisations around the world to organise a global counter-speech movement against the violent misogyny, racism, threats, intimidation and abuse that flood social media platforms.