Sending unsolicited explicit images to another device without the person’s consent should be made a specific sexual offence as part of a major shake-up of rules governing online abusive behaviour, according to the body responsible for reviewing legislation.
The Law Commission has recommended that the Sexual Offences Act be amended to include cyberflashing – when someone sends an unsolicited sexual photo, or “d*** pic”, through file-sharing functions such as Apple’s AirDrop.
There is currently no specific offence of cyberflashing, although the behaviour can be considered within the offences of harassment or public nuisance.
“Pile-on” harassment over the internet, when more than one person sends harassing communications to a victim, should also be criminalised as part of the changes to existing laws, which the body said were “ineffective” at preventing “genuinely harmful behaviour”.
Its recommendations include adapting the laws relating to encouraging or glorifying self-harm, and raising the threshold for “false communications” offences, to target those who deliberately spread theories about medical treatments which are known not to be true.
A new law should also be considered which would criminalise the deliberate sending of flashing images to people with epilepsy with the intention of triggering seizures, the Law Commission said.
Professor Penney Lewis, the organisation’s criminal law commissioner, said: “Online abuse can cause untold harm to those targeted and change is needed to ensure we are protecting victims from abuse such as cyberflashing and pile-on harassment.
“At the same time, our reforms would better protect freedom of expression by narrowing the reach of the criminal law so it only criminalises the most harmful behaviour.”
Caroline Dinenage, the digital and culture minister, said: ”We are putting new legal responsibilities on social media companies to protect the British public. But we have to be confident we can hold the individuals using these sites to threaten, abuse and spread hate accountable too.
“I thank the Law Commission for its detailed recommendations which we will carefully consider as we update our laws for the digital age, protecting freedom of speech while making sure what is unacceptable offline is unacceptable online.”
The first case of cyberflashing to be investigated by police came in 2015 after a commuter received two pictures of an unknown man’s penis on her phone via Airdrop as she commuted to work.
Since then, reports of cyberflashing have increased year on year, with data suggesting the numbers have risen since Covid due to the digital nature of life in lockdown.
A report by the University of Leicester found a third of women had complained of being cyberflashed, while a UN Women report said: “These incidents are likely to be rising as women and girls spend more time online during the pandemic.”
A separate survey carried out by Glitch, an internet safety charity, last summer found 17 per cent of women or non-binary people had been sent unsolicited pornography.
In March, the government announced it was seeking help from the public on how to tackle violence against women and girls in response to an outpouring of anger following the Sarah Everard case.
The Home Office reopened a public consultation that it said would help shape an update of its strategy on tackling violence against women and girls after the home secretary, Priti Patel, acknowledged behaviour such as cyberflashing and upskirting had become a more pervasive problem in the last decade while the law had not been changed to reflect this.
Additional reporting by PA