Communications Act 2003

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The Communications Act 2003 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.[1] The act, which came into force on 25 July 2003, consolidated the British telecommunication and broadcasting regulators. The Office of Communications (Ofcom), was introduced as the new industry regulator. On 28 December 2003 Ofcom gained its full regulatory powers, inheriting the duties of the Office of Telecommunications (Oftel). Among other measures, it introduced legal recognition of community radio and paved the way for full-time community radio services in the UK, as well as controversially lifting many restrictions on cross-media ownership. It also made it illegal to use other people's Wi-Fi broadband connections without their permission. In addition, the legislation also allowed for the first time non-European entities to wholly own a British television company.[2][dead link][3][dead link]


It is an offence under section 125 of the act to obtain access to the Internet when there is no intention to pay for that service.[4] The legislation was intended to prevent the major defrauding of communications companies. Nevertheless, the individual practice of piggybacking (the illicit use of a Wi-Fi connection to access another subscriber's Internet service) was demonstrated to be a contravention of the act by R v Straszkiewicz in 2005.[5] There have been subsequent arrests for the practice.[6] Piggybacking may also be a breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990. Section 125 of the act has been criticised for its vagueness, resulting in the possibility that many users of portable Wi-Fi enabled devices may be inadvertently breaching it.[7]

Malicious Communications[edit]

Section 127 of the act makes it an offence to send a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character over a public electronic communications network.[8] The section replaced section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 and is drafted as widely as its predecessor.[9] The section has controversially been widely used to prosecute users of social media.[10]

On 19 December 2012, to strike a balance between freedom of speech and criminality, the Director of Public Prosecutions issued interim guidelines, clarifying when social messaging is eligible for criminal prosecution under UK law. Only communications that are credible threats of violence, harassment, or stalking (such as aggressive Internet trolling) which specifically targets an individual or individuals, or breaches a court order designed to protect someone (such as those protecting the identity of a victim of a sexual offense) will be prosecuted. Communications that express an "unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humor, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it" will not. Communications that are merely "grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false" will be prosecuted only when it can be shown to be necessary and proportionate. People who pass on malicious messages, such as by retweeting, can also be prosecuted when the original message is subject to prosecution. Individuals who post messages as part of a separate crime, such as a plan to import drugs, would face prosecution for that offence, as is currently the case.[11][12][13]

Revisions to the interim guidelines were issued on 20 June 2013 following a public consultation.[14] The revisions specified that prosecutors should consider:

  • whether messages were aggravated by references to race, religion or other minorities, and whether they breached existing rules to counter harassment or stalking; and
  • the age and maturity of any wrongdoer should be taken into account and given great weight.

The revisions also clarified that criminal prosecutions were "unlikely":

  • when the author of the message had "expressed genuine remorse";
  • when "swift and effective action ... to remove the communication" was taken; or
  • when messages were not intended for a wide audience.


  1. ^ "Communications Act 2003". Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  2. ^ UK Office of Communications [4.4.1] | ICT Regulation Toolkit
  3. ^ Department for Culture Media and Sport - media ownership
  4. ^ "Communications Offences". The Crown Prosecution Service. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  5. ^ Jane Wakefield (28 July 2005). "Wireless hijacking under scrutiny". BBC News. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  6. ^ "Man arrested over wi-fi 'theft'". BBC News. 22 August 2007. Retrieved 22 August 2007. 
  7. ^ Stewart Mitchell (17 August 2009). "Vague Wi-Fi laws lead to legal risk for mobile surfers". PC Pro. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  8. ^ Neil Addison. "Harassment Law UK - Malicious Communications Offences". Harrassment Law. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  9. ^ Professor Lilian Edwards (19 October 2012). "Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003: Threat or Menace?". The London School of Economics and Political Science. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  10. ^ Amanda Bancroft (27 April 2012). "Is the law criminalising 'improper' Twitter use a menace?". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  11. ^ "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012: United Kingdom". Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 4 October 2013. 
  12. ^ Dominic Casciani (19 December 2012). "Prosecutors clarify offensive online posts law". BBC News. Retrieved 4 October 2013. 
  13. ^ "U.K. sets out social media prosecution guidelines". CBS News (Associated Press). 19 December 2012. Retrieved 4 October 2013. 
  14. ^ David Barrett (20 June 2013). "Offensive online posts to escape prosecution if writers apologise, say new guidelines". The Telegraph (UK). Retrieved 4 October 2013. 

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