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14 January 2022

Cyber-flashing is sexual harassment and must be made illegal, demand MPs

Government is being urged to make sending unsolicited sexual images a crime as ministers revise the Online Safety Bill.

By Sarah Dawood

MPs have called on government to make cyber-flashing a crime to mirror indecent exposure in real life, which carries a punishment of up to two years in prison.

Backbenchers were debating the Draft Online Safety Bill in parliament and putting forward their recommendations to Chris Philp, Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy.

The bill is currently being revised following the Joint Committee for the Draft Online Safety Bill’s report, which was published in December. The committee is a group of cross-party MPs tasked with scrutinising the proposed legislation and has laid out recommendations for changes to the bill.

The committee’s chair, Damian Collins, urged the government to adopt its advice to tighten up laws, give the regulator Ofcom more power and hold tech companies to account. “We shouldn’t have Silicon Valley deciding what the online safety of this country’s citizens should be,” he said.

Matt Warman, Conservative MP for Boston and Skegness and former minister for digital infrastructure said it was “absurd” that flashing was not yet illegal online and reiterated the joint committee’s mantra that “what is illegal offline, should be illegal online”.

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, said that “gendered harms are endemic” and urged ministers to do more to tackle sexual, physical and verbal violence towards women and girls with a “consent-based approach”.

Cyber-flashing has been illegal in Scotland since 2010 but is not currently a crime in England and Wales. It is a prevalent form of sexual harassment, disproportionately affecting younger women and teenagers. More than three quarters of girls aged 12-18 and 41 per cent of all women have reported being sent unsolicited sexual images. Deepfake pornography or “nudification” technology, which uses artificial intelligence to create fake pornographic video footage or imagery, is also a growing concern.

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“Like real-life flashing, cyber-flashing can frighten, humiliate and violate boundaries,” said Hobhouse. “It is a form of sexual harassment for which even the physical boundaries of a home offer no respite. [It is] relentless and can cause many women to police their online activity. Yet the trauma is trivialised.”

Similar feelings were echoed during the debate around content promoting suicide and self-harm and intentionally sending flashing images to those with epilepsy, with calls to also make these crimes and hold both perpetrators and tech platforms to account.

Cross-party MPs were also united in urging government to increase the scope of the Bill to cover all forms of fraud, including paid scam advertising as well as scams resulting from user-to-user interactions.

Scam ads propagate on social media websites and convince readers to part with their money often through false promises, and by using celebrities’ images without their consent. Celebrities including Robbie Williams and Holly Willoughby signed a letter fronted by MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis in November last year, calling on the government to include fraudulent ads in the bill. Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy at consumer rights group Which?, commented: “The growing epidemic of online scams continues to cause devastating emotional and financial effects on victims.”

Dame Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking, said it was “ridiculous” that paid-for scams were not currently included, adding that there is “no incentive for [tech] platforms to do anything about this”. According to Action Fraud, £2.35bn was lost to fraud between 2020 and 2021 in the UK, and 80 per cent of this was via the internet.

Nickie Aiken, Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster, added that legislation around ads needs to be “robust”, not only forcing websites to remove fraud but stop it from appearing in the first place.

There was also talk of better financial compensation for fraud victims – Kevin Hollinrake, Conversative MP for Thirsk and Malton, said there should be better redress, and tech platforms should step in and compensate victims if their banks refuse.

Philp responded by saying that the government had heard MPs demands around both cyber-flashing and paid-for scam advertising “very clearly”, adding that the government “very much hopes to address [fraud] when we update the bill” and that it will study the joint committee’s recommendations around new illegal offences “very carefully”.

The government has not yet confirmed when it will publish a revised bill but is expected to do so before the end of the current parliament session, according to Philp, which is Spring. “The [joint committee’s] report will most definitely have an impact on legislation,” he told MPs.

Watch the full session in parliament.

Read more about the Draft Online Safety Bill and what it means for social media platforms.

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