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How is technology affecting UK law?

22nd May 2017

Drone UK law

With the rise of technology including drones, hoverboards, smart phones and social media, UK law has been forced to adapt. More data is being shared than ever before and while legislation has been introduced to regulate this, these technological advances are also helping police and those in legal roles to capture criminals. In this article, Law Absolute takes a look at some of the most prominent changes in technology and how these have influenced UK law.

Drones 

With the capability of capturing footage and data, drones have fuelled an urgent review of UK legislation in the last few years. Since their initial launch, companies have released drones at competitive prices, meaning you’re very likely to spot them soaring overhead all over the UK. While rules and laws have been introduced to regulate the use of drones with cameras, this new technology is also being used to assist police and search and rescue teams.

Drones capable of capturing footage

Laws in regard to UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are constantly evolving, and when anyone uses a drone capable of capturing footage, they should be aware of the UK’s current legislation. Drones with cameras are used for multiple reasons, as James from Smashing Drones explains: “More consumer drones are being used for aerial photography than ever before. Also as a lot of countries have less strict laws compared to the UK, many people use them on holiday to capture footage from a unique perspective.

“Commercially, quadcopters are being used by many industries such as agriculture to monitor crops, real estate for aerial photography, search and rescue to reach remote spots and surveyors utilising them for inspections.”

Firstly, anyone flying a drone with a camera must consider the impact of the Data Protection Act 1998 on the collection of footage. In order to comply with this law, the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance recommends those flying a drone make it obvious that they are responsible for the drone and that it is capable of filming. It also highlights the importance of making sure you only fly the drone in an appropriate location. For example, using the drone to film over a neighbour’s property may infringe on their privacy and could lead to prosecution for harassment.

“Due to a few high profile incidents drones have been in the media for the wrong reasons on occasion,” said James. “It is important for all owners to show some common sense and familiarise themselves with the laws on where they can legally fly their drone and what they can do with it while flying.

“The Civil Aviation Authority has a dedicated page on its website which details everything you need to know. When using a camera drone you must not fly within 50 metres of a person or structure or within 150 metres of a busy area or event. The highest you are legally allowed to fly your drone is 400 feet, regardless of location, and it must be within your line of sight at all times.”

Individuals flying drones must also be aware of the impact of general laws on flying an unmanned aircraft. For example, if you intentionally hit someone or damage someone else’s property, you could be liable to criminal and civil sanctions. If you fly your drone without a reasonable standard of care and injure someone or damage their property, you could be negligent and liable to compensate the victim. If you fly your drone low over someone’s land without their permission, this could be considered trespassing.

Drones and air traffic safety

New measures being considered in the UK could mean anyone who buys a drone may have to register it and take a safety test. The proposed legislation comes after multiple near-misses between drones and passenger jets. According to an article in The Guardian, aviation chiefs reported 56 near-miss incidents between January and October 2016.

Steve Landells, flight safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots Association, told The Guardian: “Drones are here to stay and, as this technology develops and becomes more important in the aviation world, it is vital they are integrated into the airspace in a safe and sensible manner.”

James at Smashing Drones agreed that a test may benefit users, but the types of drones being used should be considered: “A sensible approach needs to prevail and prevent some of the hysteria surrounding drones from spiralling out of control. I agree that many users may benefit from some sort of training to help them become better pilots, but I am unsure if it should be compulsory across the board.

“If someone purchases a beginner type model for £40 it is going to be completely different from flying a DJI Phantom 4 or other high-end quadcopters. A few people in the UAV community I have been speaking to have suggested that whether or not you have to be tested should depend on what you intend to use the drone for.”

The proposed legislation also includes criminal liability for anyone who flies a drone within a “no-fly zone”, including surrounding airports and prisons. If introduced, anyone breaking this law could receive a substantial fine. Those in or seeking in house legal jobs should keep an eye on this legislation as it progresses.

Social media 

Social media legislation

Since the internet was introduced in dial-up format in 1992, UK law has adapted to incorporate a number of vital pieces of legislation. As technology continued to develop with the introduction of broadband internet, smartphones and social media, it quickly became apparent that legislation must be adapted and extended. In 1988, the Malicious Communications Act was introduced, making it illegal to send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety. The act also applies to electronic communications. In 2003, the Communications Act was introduced, broadly covering malicious communication using social media, which then became a criminal offence.

In recent years, the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has caused a dramatic increase in prosecutions related to “internet trolling”. An article in The Telegraph in 2015 revealed that convictions for crimes under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 – improper use of public electronic communications network - had increased ten-fold in a decade. The article revealed figures by the Ministry of Justice which showed in 2014, 1,209 people were found guilty of offences under Section 127, compared to just 143 in 2004. The figures also recorded a rise in the number of convictions under the Malicious Communications Act, with 694 individuals being prosecuted under this law during the same time period.

Today, social media users are advised to think carefully before posting or tweeting. Every year, UK laws are developing to incorporate the ever-changing world of social media. Writer and food blogger Jack Monroe was recently awarded a libel action case against Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins. Hopkins’ posted tweets suggesting Monroe approved of defacing a war memorial during an anti-austerity demonstration in London. The judge ruled that Hopkins’ tweets were defamatory and that there had been “serious harm” to Monroe’s reputation, according to a report in The Guardian. Monroe was awarded £24,000 in damages.

Technology and coercive control laws

A unique example of how technology has fuelled changes in UK legislation is section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 – controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. This law stipulates that an offence is committed if someone repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person that is controlling or coercive. The two ways in which this can be proved are if the victim is caused to fear that violence may be used against them or if it causes them serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities.

Technology plays an important role in this legislation. Domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid released research findings which showed that almost 40 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds interviewed said they had been subjected to “controlling behaviour”, including having their phone, messages, emails and social media accounts checked. An article by The Independent stated that the rise of mobile technology is making methods of control “ever easier and more varied”, with messaging services showing when messages have been read and the increase in tracking apps.

The coercive control legislation covers instances in which perpetrators monitor their victims via online communication tools or spyware. Accepted evidence under this new law includes copies of emails, phone records, text messages and evidence of abuse over the internet via digital technology and social media platforms.

Cycle helmet cameras

Cycle helmet camera

Proving cases of dangerous driving can be tricky unless the incident is caught on CCTV or catches the attention of a passing police car. This is thought to be the reason behind the surge in cyclists using helmet cameras. According to the Road Justice campaign, cyclists feel unprotected by the law and that they need to gather their own evidence if they want to obtain justice in the event of a crash.

New laws have been introduced on cycle helmet cameras in recent years. For example, the law states that cameras can be attached to a helmet using a bracket but cannot be secured by drilling holes in the shell, as it may compromise the integrity of the head gear. Recording footage using cycle helmet camera is not illegal, though it may not be accepted as evidence by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). In order to be used as evidence, the footage must show the cause of the accident (e.g. the vehicle).

In a recent case, Nisha Singh, a 33-year-old cyclist, was knocked off her bike by a van driver in London. Although Singh submitted her helmet camera footage which clearly shows the incident, Metropolitan police did not prosecute the man behind the wheel for careless driving. He was instead told to attend a safer driving course. Singh told the Evening Standard: “I think the safe driving course is fine but I think there should be more punishment for people who drive badly, not just the ones who cause gratuitous harm.

“The statement I got back from the police said unless you have life-threatening injuries or you are dead, we don’t prosecute. I believe that that is completely ludicrous.”

In a blog post, Paul Kitson, principal lawyer in personal injury at Slater & Gordon, said: “The CPS can be reluctant to prosecute motorists for careless or dangerous driving and the high burden of proof required in criminal proceedings partly explains why this is the case.”

According to Kitson, the burden of proof is lower in the Civil Courts where cases need to be proven on a balance of probabilities. When it comes to providing witness evidence, however, many people are often reluctant to come forward. In the event that the victim has lost consciousness during the incident, cycling helmet camera footage could “help a great deal by plugging any evidential gaps which might exist,” says Kitson.

He also adds that the quality of film will determine whether or not footage from the cycle helmet camera may be of any help to the injured cyclist in court. Should the date and time on the footage be incorrect, which could occur if the cyclist has recent replaced the camera battery, the footage may still be admissible. Kitson added: “Slater and Gordon Lawyers have pursued several cycling accident claims in the civil courts for CTC (Cyclists’ Touring Club) members where helmet camera footage was used in evidence. Insurance companies have often admitted liability when the footage was disclosed to them whereas previously they might have maintained a denial of liability.”

Other laws on recent technology

Hoverboard UK law

Hoverboards

In the last few years, the hoverboard trend has swept across the globe. With the arrival of these self-balancing mini scooters, the CPS was quick to reiterate that laws are in place banning their use in public places. UK legislation banning ‘riding’ on the path initially appeared in the Highway Act, dating back to 1835. Since then the law developed to make it illegal to ride a bicycle on the path in 1879. In 2011, the High Court announced the law also applies to riding a Segway.

The law stipulates that hoverboards are unsafe to ride on the road or the pavement, and may only be used on land that is private property, with the landowner’s permission. In 2015, Simon Benson of hoverboard distributor Ghetto Gadgets told The Guardian: “If the authorities give any impression that the use of hoverboards in some circumstances is unlawful, then I expect sales to soar.

“Clearly customers need to take advice, but millennials are not going to take kindly to the authorities using a law that pre-dates the penny-farthing to tell them what they can or can’t do on the streets of Britain.”

Kodi Boxes

Kodi Boxes are designed to allow people to stream shows or watch them on any platform including computers, smartphones or tablets. Although they are legal to buy and use in the UK to watch free content, it is illegal to use a Kodi Box to stream subscription-only channels for free. Some boxes are being modified to access paid content channels using third-party plug-ins, meaning people are watching shows illegally. It is also illegal to purchase a modified Kodi Box which allows access to subscription-only channels.

The European Court of Justice ruled that a device which has been modified is illegal, meaning anyone selling a box which is intended to be used to infringe copyright will be treated as if they have infringed copyright themselves, and could face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. The Digital Economy Bill, introduced in April 2017, increased the punishment for those using the boxes illegally.

Amazon has now banned these “fully loaded” Kodi Boxes from being sold on its site, as has eBay. According to a report in The Sun, police arrested five people accused of selling these boxes in a crackdown on devices in February 2017.

Image credit: UVAIR Australia, Richard Masoner