Abusive messages, cyber flashing, and “pile-on” harassment could soon become criminal offences, under new law reforms proposed to crack down on abusive behaviour online.
Cyber flashing, a problem HuffPost UK has highlighted since 2017, is when someone sends an unsolicited sexual image to another device nearby. It’s common for perpetrators to send images, such as “dick pics”, to women via Apple’s AirDrop function.
To date, there’s been no law that directly addresses this “digital flashing” in England and Wales, although it has been illegal in Scotland since 2009.
The proposed law reforms will also target abusive online messages, including “pile on” harassment. The latter is where online harassment is co-ordinated against an individual, via apps and across social media platforms.
The Law Commission said existing safeguards have failed to keep up with changes to how we communicate today, over-criminalising in some situations while under-criminalising in others.
Online abuse covered under current communications offences does not adequately address these types of incidents, the independent body said.
The commission proposes changes to the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003 to criminalise behaviour where a communication would “likely cause harm”, which would cover electronic attacks such as an abusive email, a social media post, a WhatsApp message or content sent through Bluetooth.
Meanwhile, it’s recommended that cyber flashing be included as a sexual offence under Section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
“As the internet and social media have become an everyday part of our lives, the amount of abuse has also risen,” said Criminal Law Commissioner Professor Penney Lewis.
“Unfortunately, the law has not kept up and isn’t giving victims the protection they need. Our proposals will tackle this harmful behaviour whilst also ensuring that we protect people’s freedom of speech.”
More than 70 women have shared their experience of being cyber flashed with HuffPost UK, labelling the incidents: “Disrespectful, ignorant and disgusting.”
“It made me feel really violated. I felt very exposed that I could be sent something in the middle of the day without warning,” said Jess Shepherd, 28, from Manchester, who was cyber flashed via AirDrop at a restaurant.
“I’ve heard of this happening to people but I never thought it would happen in a lecture hall,” added Isabella Smith, 20, from Birmingham, who was cyber flashed via AirDrop in a university lecture theatre.
“That is meant to be a safe place.”
The proposals suggest the introduction of proof of likely harm, as present laws do not need proof of likely harm, nor proof of actual harm.
Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden, welcomed the consultation paper, saying: “Online communication has been a lifeline for many in recent months but it should not be a refuge for abusive, harmful or criminal behaviour.
“I thank the Law Commission for its review and look forward to seeing the final recommendations on its proposed reforms to criminal law next year. We will soon introduce new legislation to put more responsibility on companies so they have the right systems in place to protect people online.”