Trolls who send epilepsy sufferers flashing images over the internet face up to five years in jail under a new offence, known as Zach’s Law, in the Online Safety Bill.
Michelle Donelan, Culture Secretary, laid an amendment to the Bill on Monday criminalising “epilepsy trolling”, where someone sends or shows flashing images electronically to people with epilepsy intending to cause them harm.
The move coincided with the return of the planned legislation to the Commons after a five-month delay, and follows a campaign by 11-year-old Zach Eagling and the Epilepsy Society for a change in the law.
Zach, who has cerebral palsy, launched his campaign last year after staging a fund-raising event. Emulating his hero, the late Captain Sir Tom Moore, he raised £20,000 for the Epilepsy Society by completing laps of his garden totalling 2.6 miles.
However, trolls bombarded the social media pages linked to the event with hundreds of flashing messages, GIFs and garish pictures, in an effort to trigger seizures. Zach did not see the messages but three of his online followers suffered non-life-threatening reactions to them.
The offence would cover any electronic communication that consists of flashing images sent to someone when it was “reasonably foreseeable” that person would have epilepsy, with the intent to cause harm. The maximum term would be a jail term “not exceeding five years”.
Clare Pelham, chief executive at the Epilepsy Society, welcomed a move that would bring “courtesy and civility to the badlands of social media”.
She added that a change to the law would “protect vulnerable people from the keyboard warriors who bravely target disabled people behind a mask of anonymity, maliciously targeting people with epilepsy with flashing images designed to cause seizures”.
During Monday’s report stage of the Bill, Priti Patel suggested that as home secretary she called up social media platforms to try to make them remove intimate images shared without the consent of victims, only to be told the company did not work on weekends.
The Conservative former cabinet minister, speaking about clauses related to the sharing of intimate images, said: “We’ve experienced too many harrowing and shocking stories of women who have suffered from images and videos that have existed.
“But there is a point here: it must now be a priority for the criminal justice system and the online platforms in particular that where this content is hosted, that it is removed.
“This isn’t a negotiation any more. Too many of us have been involved, quite frankly, and I have as home secretary… literally [been] phoning up platforms at weekends to insist they take content down, and… then being told that ‘Twitter don’t work on a Saturday, home secretary’, and that this is going to take time – it is not acceptable.
“That is an insult. This is an absolute insult to the victims and it is just morally reprehensible and wrong, which is why they must be held to account.”