Cyberflashing to be criminalised under new online safety bill

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Cyberflashing will become a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years in jail, under new laws to be introduced in the government’s upcoming online safety bill, which it has said will be rolled out “as soon as possible”.

Ministers confirmed that laws banning cyberflashing - which involves perpetrators sending unsolicited sexual images to people via social media, dating apps or data-sharing services such as Bluetooth and Airdrop - will be included alongside wide-ranging reforms to make the internet a safer place.

It comes after a 2020 study found that three-quarters (76 per cent) of teenage girls between the ages of 12 and 18 have been exposed to cyberflashing.

A more recent study published in February found that more than a fifth of girls and young women aged between 13 and 21 in the UK have been cyberflashed in the last year.

Girlguiding, which commissioned the research, told The Independent that cyberflashing is a “real issue faced by girls and young women in the UK”.

Making cyberflashing a new offence will give the police and the Crown Prosecution Service “greater ability to bring more perpetrators to justice”, the Ministry of Justice said.

It follows the recent criminalisation of upskirting – where someone takes a photograph under another women’s clothing without their knowledge – and breastfeeding voyeurism, which involves a person taking non-consensual photographs or videos of breastfeeding mothers.

Digital secretary Nadine Dorries said the landmark online safety bill will “force tech companies to stop their platforms being used to commit vile acts of cyberflashing”.

“We are bringing the full weight on individuals who perpetrate this awful behaviour,” she added.

Professor Penny Lewis, criminal law commissioner at the Law Commission, said: “Whilst the online world offers important opportunities to share ideas and engage with one another, it has also increased the scope for abuse and harm.

“Reports of cyberflashing are rising worryingly. This offence will close loopholes in the existing law and ensure that cyberflashing is treated as seriously as in-person flashing.”

However, the law only applies if it can be proven that the sender of the offensive photo or video did so “for the purpose of their own sexual gratification or to cause the victim humiliation, alarm or distress”.

Professor Clare McGynn, author of Cyberflashing: Recognising Harms, Reforming Laws, told The Independent that while the proposed new law is a “welcome first start” in recognising the “intimidating and violating experience of being sent penis images without consent”, more needs to be done to protect victims.

“If the government rhetoric is to match reality, further steps are needed,” she says. “The proposed law means it will only be a criminal offence where proof of sexual motives or desire to cause distress are proven.

“This proposal leaves significant gaps in the law where men send penis images for a laugh, a joke among their friends, to gain kudos. It will also make prosecutions difficult as evidence of motives is required.

“What we need is a comprehensive, straightforward law based on non-consent. Intentionally sending a penis image without consent should be the offence, regardless of the motives of offenders. This follows international best practice in many US states and is what victims are calling for.”

Deniz Uğur, deputy director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, added that the coalition is concerned that the offence may be “effectively useless” due to requirement for police and prosecutors to “evidence a perpetrator’s intent to cause harm”.

“This will work effectively as a loophole that perpetrators would be able to fall back on and avoid consequences, much as we see in cases of image-based sexual abuse, making it incredibly difficult to prosecute a harm that has a significant impact on girls and young women,” she said.

“The only relevant factor in this offence should be whether or not there was consent regardless of the perpetrator’s intent, given that we know image-based sexual abuse causes harm regardless of intention.

“If the government is serious about addressing violence against women and girls, including its online dimensions, it must name violence against women on the face of the Online Safety Bill.”

Girlguiding Advocate Kate said: “We’re looking forward to reading the Online Safety Bill in full, as we know 79 per cent of girls experience harm online, including sexist comments, sexual harassment, cyber stalking and pressure to share nude images.

“This announcement is certainly a step in the right direction, but the bill must cover VAWG in its entirety to provide the protection urgently needed.”