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UK government brands trolls 'baying cowards' ahead of stiff, new prison sentences

Planned new laws could put British Internet abusers behind bars for up to two years.

TV's Judy Finnegan and Richard Madeley with their daughter Chloe Madeley, who has received threats online. David M. Benett/Getty Images

The British government's top legal figure has branded trolls a "baying cyber-mob" of "cowards" ahead of proposed laws to put online abusers in prison for as long as two years.

"These Internet trolls are cowards who are poisoning our national life," UK Justice secretary Chris Grayling told the Mail on Sunday newspaper this weekend. He said proposed laws "take a stand against a baying cyber-mob" and warns that "if you troll you risk being behind bars for two years."

The new measures were proposed in an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill in July and could quadruple current sentences. Currently, the maximum sentence for online harassment in Britain is six months.

Cases are heard by UK magistrates under the Malicious Communications Act, but that law is 10 years old, and so was conceived before Twitter and Facebook. Under these new laws, magistrates would pass serious cases on to the crown courts, with police given more time to collect evidence.

The maximum two-year sentence will also cover the posting of "revenge porn", or making available online sexually explicit pictures without the permission of the subject.

The bill is due to be debated in the House of Lords next week. If successful, the measures would only apply in England and Wales, as Scotland has full control over its own lawmaking.

The first UK conviction for trolling was in 2011, when 25-year-old Sean Duffy was jailed for 18 weeks for a campaign of abusive messages and videos targeting the families and friends of teenagers who had died. More recently, 23-year-old Isabella Sorley and 25-year-old John Nimmo were given 12- and eight-week prison sentences respectively for abusing activist Caroline Criado-Perez over her campaign to feature Jane Austen on a banknote.

The sending of abusive messages online or on social media, popularly known as trolling, is in the news in the UK after attacks on British TV presenter Chloe Madeley, daughter of former "This Morning" couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan. In the US, cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian is among those facing a torrent of abuse for having the temerity to discuss or be involved in video games.