Electronic Communications Offences

The law governing criminal offences relating to the interception of electronic communications, and sending offensive communications, is mainly found in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA); the Communications Act 2003; and the Malicious Communications Act 1988

Intercepting communications

It is an offence under section 1 RIPA to intentionally, and without lawful authority, intercept telephone calls in the UK for the purpose of making the contents of them available to others who are not the intended recipients while being transmitted. ‘Intercept’ includes monitoring and recording phones calls. The same applies to the UK’s public postal service and other public communications systems including email and social media communications (Facetime, Messenger video, etc).

Anyone convicted of an offence under section 1 RIPA faces up to two years in prison, and/or a fine up to the statutory maximum.

Are there any exceptions?

There are exceptions to these rules: for example, interception is lawful if it takes place in accordance with an interception warrant; or by the authorities in the exercise of their statutory powers. Employees can give employers explicit consent to their communications being monitored, such that no offence under RIPA is being committed.

It is also lawful to intercept a private phone call (or other private means of communication such as email) if both parties consent. Consent to this can be either express or implied.

The Communications Act 2003

A public communications network is an electronic communications network provided wholly or mainly for the purpose of making electronic communications services available to the public. This includes emails and text messages, and via Facebook and Twitter.

It is a criminal offence under section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 to transmit messages which are grossly offensive, indecent, pornographic, obscene or menacing through a public electronic communications network. This applies whether the material is written or pictorial.

A person commits an offence if they send this type of message through a public electronic communications network – knowing it to be false – in order to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another. Even making persistent use of a network for the purpose of causing someone annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety is a criminal offence. On conviction, the perpetrator can be sent to prison for up to six months, and/or face a fine.

The Malicious Communications Act 1988

It is an offence to send someone any letter, electronic communication – including via social media – or article which is indecent or grossly offensive, or is false or conveys a threat – with the intention to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient.

A crucial element for this offence is the malicious intent of the defendant – whether or not the recipient was distressed at receiving it is not actually required for an offence to have taken place. On conviction, the individual faces a prison sentence of up to six months.

These offences show that the inappropriate and offensive use of public electronic communications networks will not be tolerated by the courts.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.