The UK government has announced the next phase of a review of the law around the making and sharing of non-consensual intimate images, with ministers saying they want to ensure it keeps pace with evolving digital tech trends.

The review is being initiated in response to concerns that abusive and offensive communications are on the rise, as a result of it becoming easier to create and distribute sexual images of people online without their permission.

Among the issues the Law Commission will consider are so-called ‘revenge porn’, where intimate images of a person are shared without their consent; deepfaked porn, which refers to superimposing a real photograph of a person’s face onto a pornographic image or video without their consent; and cyber flashing, the unpleasant practice of sending unsolicited sexual images to a person’s phone by exploiting technologies such as Bluetooth that allow for proximity-based file sharing.

On the latter practice, the screengrab below is of one of two unsolicited messages I received as pop-ups on my phone in the space of a few seconds while waiting at a UK airport gate — and before I’d had a chance to locate the iOS master setting that actually nixes Bluetooth.

On iOS, even without accepting the AirDrop the cyberflasher is still able to send an unsolicited placeholder image with their request.

Safe to say, this example is at the tamer end of what tends to be involved. More often it’s actual dick pics fired at people’s phones, not a parrot-friendly silicone substitute…

cyber flashing

A patchwork of UK laws already covers at least some of the offensive and abusive communications in question, such as the offence of voyeurism under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which criminalises certain non-consensual photography taken for sexual gratification — and carries a two-year maximum prison sentence (with the possibility that a perpetrator may be required to be listed on the sexual offender register); while revenge porn was made a criminal offence under section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.

But the government says that while it feels the law in this area is “robust”, it is keen not to be seen as complacent — hence continuing to keep it under review.

It will also hold a public consultation to help assess whether changes in the law are required.

The Law Commission published Phase 1 of their review of Abusive and Offensive Online Communications on November 1 last year — a scoping report setting out the current criminal law which applies.

The second phase, announced today, will consider the non-consensual taking and sharing of intimate images specifically — and look at possible recommendations for reform. Though it will not report for two years so any changes to the law are likely to take several years to make it onto the statute books.

Among specific issues the Law Commission will consider is whether anonymity should automatically be granted to victims of revenge porn.

Commenting in a statement, 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.”

Maynard added that the review builds on recent changes to toughen UK laws around revenge porn and to outlaw ‘upskirting’ in English law; aka the degrading practice of taking intimate photographs of others without consent.

“Too many young people are falling victim to co-ordinated abuse online or the trauma of having their private sexual images shared. That’s not the online world I want our children to grow up in,” added the secretary of state for digital issues, Jeremy Wright, in another supporting statement.

“We’ve already set out world-leading plans to put a new duty of care on online platforms towards their users, overseen by an independent regulator with teeth. 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.”

The Law Commission review will begin on July 1, 2019 and report back to the government in summer 2021.

Terms of Reference will be published on the Law Commission’s website in due course.


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