British police forces arrested at least nine people a day for “offensive” online comments last year.
Figures obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that 3,395 people across 29 forces were arrested last under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it illegal to intentionally “cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another”, in 2016.
The true figure is likely to be significantly higher, as thirteen police forces refused to provide the requested information and two did not provide usable data.
Around half of the investigations were abandoned before being brought to prosecution, which critics say is an indication that the authorities are being excessively strict in their interpretation of the law’s restrictions on freedom of speech.
Nevertheless, many forces have massively stepped up their focus on so-called trolls, with the number of arrests by West Midlands Police having increased by an astonishing 877 per cent since 2014.
With Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s announcement of a special national police hub focused on online hate last week, it is expected that these numbers will only increase.
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “the problem is ‘grossly offensive’ is not something you should normally be prosecuted for. It’s not showing harm to other people. It’s not showing that somebody is being … attacked or threatened.”