Revenge porn victims could be granted anonymity in review of online abuse laws

Law Commission to make recommendations on 'cyberflashing' and deepfake pornography 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 26 June 2019 07:04
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Revenge porn victims could be granted anonymity as part of a review of the laws around online abuse.

MPs and campaigners have been calling for victims to be protected from further harassment after the sharing of private or sexual images or videos of a person without their consent was made a criminal offence in 2015.

Survivor Lena Chen previously told The Independent how she had to leave the US and change her name when she was harassed for years after her ex-boyfriend’s posted of intimate photos online.

The Law Commission is to consider the case for granting revenge porn victims automatic anonymity, which is currently standard for sexual offences, as part of a wide-ranging review.

The independent body will also look at whether current laws are sufficient to tackle the emerging offence of “cyberflashing”, where victims are sent unsolicited sexual photos and “deepfake” pornography that sees victims’ faces added to explicit videos.

The Ministry of Justice said the review would report back in summer 2021.

But campaigners called the two-year delay “completely unacceptable” following years of calls for action.

“Women and girls people need real world protections today – they can’t wait for years for the government to take action,” said Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition. "Given the speed of technological change, how quickly on-line abuse evolves and how harmful it is right now, this is completely unacceptable.

“Experts including specialist women’s services and academics have told the government what changes are needed to the law. It has been clear for some time that a comprehensive new law tackling online abuse, focused on the harm done to the victim rather than a narrow examination of intent is needed.

“Alongside new criminal laws, victims need to be able to access specialist services and need to be protected by the same anonymity afforded to victims of offline sexual violence.”

Clare McGlynn, professor in law at Durham University and an expert on image-based sexual abuse, urged the government to “act now before more people’s lives are shattered by these abuses”.

She added: “We don’t need further consultation to understand how urgent this is. It is incumbent upon the government top now announce further resources to support victims.”

Police figures show record numbers of revenge porn cases are being investigated, with thousands of reports being made every year.

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A dedicated helpline for victims of the crime has received more than 14,000 contacts since it launched in February 2015.

A YouGov poll in 2017 found that 41 per cent of British women aged under 36 had been sent an unsolicited photo of a penis, with many reporting receiving images in public via the iPhone AirDrop function.

MPs on the Women and Equalities Committee called for a new law criminalising “all non-consensual creation and distribution of intimate sexual images“ last year and the government pledged to address their recommendations in March.

Cyberflashing can be addressed using existing voyeurism laws, and the emerging practice of “deepfaking” may fall under malicious or obscene communications.

It sees victims’ faces projected onto pre-existing videos using software that has been made freely available online.

Although realistic deepfakes can be created for any type of video and have sparked concerns over political manipulation, they have proliferated widely on porn websites.

Female celebrities are currently the most common targets, but machine learning means that anyone can become a victim if the abuser obtains a clear set of photographs.

Professor David Ormerod QC, head of criminal law at the Law Commission, said: “Behaviours such as taking, making and sharing intimate images without consent or co-ordinated online harassment causes distress and can ruin lives. If the criminal laws are not up to scratch, we will propose reforms that simplify the current patchwork of offences to provide more effective protection for victims.”

The Ministry of Justice said it was “committed to ensuring the right protections are in place for the modern age” and invited people to respond to a public consultation.

Justice minister Paul Maynard said: “No one should have to suffer the immense distress of having intimate images taken or shared without consent. We are acting to make sure our laws keep pace with emerging technology and trends in these disturbing and humiliating crimes.

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“This review will build on our recent work to make ‘upskirting’ and revenge porn illegal to protect victims and ensure perpetrators feel the full weight of the law.”

Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, said the government’s Online Harms White Paper would also place a new duty of care on technology firms, overseen by an independent regulator. Too many young people are falling victim to co-ordinated abuse online or the trauma of having their private sexual images shared,” he added. “That’s not the online world I want our children to grow up in.

“This review will ensure that the current law is fit for purpose as we deliver our commitment to make the UK the safest place to be online.”

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