Matt Hancock Calls For Tough Action On ‘Cyberflashing’, Threatening New Law If Phone Giants Fail To Act

Paul Waugh

Health secretary Matt Hancock has warned internet and phone giants they could face fresh laws to stamp out ‘cyberflashing’ if they fail to stamp out the practice.

In an interview with HuffPost UK, the Tory leadership contender said that if he became PM he would take tough action against men who send unsolicited ‘dick pics’ to women by exploiting smartphone technology.

A growing number of women have spoken to HuffPost UK  being subjected to receiving indecent images on their mobile phones when travelling on the Tube or train, thanks to a weakness in Apple’s Airdrop sharing function.

Hancock said that he hoped that tech giants would find a solution, but if not then it would be for government to tighten the law to protect women.

“Cyberflashing is absolutely disgusting and it’s a really good case in point where what is illegal offline should also be illegal offline,” he said.

“If a man walked down the street and exposed himself to people who didn’t want that to happen there are laws about that. And yet online it seems increasingly to happen and we need to tackle it.

“Yes the companies have got a responsibility and frankly their artificial intelligence algorithms should be able to work out what is and isn’t an inappropriate picture but there’s also a legal aspect here where we have the law and it needs to be applied properly.”

Cyberflashing is already a criminal offence, but few people are aware of the law and police and prosecutors seem often confused about the nature of the crime.

Asked if he was as prime minister prepared to strengthen the law, Hancock replied: “If need be, like we did on upskirting, yes. But the basis should be if it’s illegal offline, it’s illegal online too. I think in this area there’s more work that can be done.”

The practice of ‘upskirting’ - taking photos or videos underneath another person’s clothing, without their consent and for the purpose of sexual gratification or to cause humiliation, distress or alarm - was made a criminal offence in April this year.

Under the new law, perpetrators now face up to two years in jail and being added to the sex offenders register.

Victims of upskirting will be entitled to automatic protection like others subjected to sexual offences, to prevent them from being identified in the media.

But campaign groups have also called for similar action to be taken on ‘cyberflashing’ in a bid to offer greater protection.

Following a HuffPost campaign, Commons equalities committee chair Maria Miller told us earlier this year: “What the government needed a year ago, indeed two, was a comprehensive bill against all image-based abuse. If they don’t do that, we are sleepwalking into a crisis.”

A BBC Radio 5Live poll found that two out of three UK adults (68 per cent of those surveyed) would like to see a law that made sending unsolicited images of your genitals illegal.

As Digital Secretary, Hancock was responsible for a string of moves to tackle online harms, including the start of the new ‘pornblocker’ restrictions that kick in from next month with a requirement of age-identification to protect children.

The government has persuaded Instagram to remove self-harm content and Twitter searches for anti-vaccine material automatically produces an NHS website with factual advice.

“A few years ago when I became digital minister and said there are some things online and companies need to deal with, people said ‘no no the internet is a free for all, you can’t do anything about it because it is all determined in San Francisco’,”  he said.

“Total rubbish, we are masters of our own fate, we are a sovereign nation, and we changed some things directly.”  

The criminal offence of upskirting was created under the Voyeurism Act, after a year of campaigning by Gina Martin, who was upskirted at a music festival.

The act received Royal Assent in February 2018, but has taken several months to come into full effect because local police forces were given a grace period to ensure guidance was updated and the law could be effectively enforced.

Hancock told HuffPost that if he were leader of the Tory party he would make a priority the need to attrack young women voters, as well as minority ethnic voters.

“Amongst under-25 year old women, polling for the Conservative party is 8%. And we urgently need to address that,” he said.

“The argument I have is about focusing on the future and bringing in more supporters to the Conservative party not just those who voted Brexit but younger voters, women, BAME.”

He also stressed that the 160,000 Tory members who would choose the next leader should not be misrepresented by the “noisy proportion who focus very strongly on Brexit”.

“Most Conservative party members in my experience are fine upstanding members of the community and they’re the same people organising the village fete and raising money for charity and being school governors.

“Of course there’s a noisy proportion who focus very strongly on Brexit but there’s a much broader group. I speak to Conservative party audiences all the time and they care deeply about their country and crucially they really care about stopping Jeremy Corbyn and this hard left socialism ever taking power.”

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