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Revenge porn and 'cyber-flashing' laws go under review

Law Commission examines legislation on sharing of intimate images online

Man watching pornography

The Law Commission review will report back in 2021. Photograph: PA Wire

Victims of revenge porn may be given automatic anonymity in court under a government-initiated review of online harassment that could recommend criminalising "cyber-flashing" and "deepfake" images.

The Law Commission has been asked by the justice and culture ministries to examine whether legislation surrounding the creation and sharing of non-consensual, intimate images protects those targeted and has kept pace with technological change.

A public consultation will be launched to explore whether the law needs to be extended to prosecute such abusive and offensive communications. It will look at image-based abuse as concerns grow that it has become easier to create and distribute sexual images of individuals online without their permission.

Two digital trends - cyber-flashing, when people receive unsolicited sexual images on their mobile phone, and deepfake pornography, where an individual's face is superimposed on to pornographic photos or videos - will be the focus of the review. The review will only examine deepfake pictures in relation to intimate, sexual imagery and will not consider the broader question of digitally-altered photographs.

Sending revenge pornography has already been made a criminal offence, but the Law Commission will consider the case for granting automatic anonymity to victims so they cannot be identified, as is the case for victims of sexual offences.

The 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.

"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."

The culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, said: "Too many young people are falling victim to coordinated 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.

"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."

Some malicious, online behaviour such as voyeurism is already covered by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and social media companies are already expected to take down obscene and offensive material that contravenes their terms of use.

Prof David Ormerod QC, the criminal law commissioner at the Law Commission, said: "Behaviours such as taking, making and sharing intimate images without consent or coordinated 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 review, which opens next month and is due to report back in 2021, will consider the meaning of terms such as "private" and "sexual" in the context of the taking and sharing of images without consent.


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