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MILLER Maria white Marr

Maria Miller is MP for Basingstoke

Today in the House of Lords, Amendment 40 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill is being debated to make the posting of revenge pornography a sexual offence. The amendment has been welcomed by Women’s Aid and the Safer Internet Centre, two organisations at the sharp end of supporting people who have been victims of sexually explicit and nude images being posted on line without their consent after the break-up of a relationship.

Whilst the internet is a force for good it is undeniably used by some as a weapon.  Revenge pornography is a stark example of where our criminal law does not properly address the damage to victims.

Working with Baroness Elizabeth Berridge and Baroness Trish Morris I want to see this newest form of internet misuse reclassified in law as a form of sexual assault. This would better recognise the true nature of this crime and send a clear message to the perpetrators, Internet Service Providers and Social Network companies alike: revenge pornography is a crime and a serious one.

The Safer Internet Centre reports seeing growing numbers of cases, including people of all ages, with scanned images that clearly pre-date the digital age. This is far from being something that should worry only the internet generation.

Current law doesn’t capture the real impact of this crime on its victims. In evidence to the Lords Select Committee on Communications earlier this month Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh, who is in charge of online crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers, described the law as a “mishmash” of different pieces of legislation. He’s right. Many revenge pornography images are not obscene or indecent and so are not illegal under the Malicious Communications Act 1998; the images might not be classified as ‘grossly offensive’ and therefore won’t be caught by the Communications Act 2003; and the posting of revenge pornography is not always part of a pattern of behaviour and won’t therefore fall under the Protection of Harassment Act 1997. But revenge pornography clearly violates the victim’s sexual autonomy and results in harm, the litmus test of a sexual assault under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Criminalising the posting of revenge pornography is important in its own right but there is a broader issue to consider. How do we ensure that the law can adequately deal with the evolving nature of the internet whilst vigorously defending free speech?

The House of Lords Communications Committee has set up a short, four week inquiry into the legal and regulatory framework around social media and online communications. I am sure that their Report, due before the summer recess, will be a valuable contribution and I hope they will be able to include evidence from groups that support victims.

So far the UK has led the way by working with the online industry to address issues as they emerge most notably regarding the removal of illegal child sexual images. But we need to have total confidence that many other emerging issues are being handled too: age verification, identity verification and abuse reporting, all need an industry wide approach. UKCCIS and its members are well placed to support an industry-wide Code of Practice.

Support for those affected by illegal online activity is still in its infancy. The work of the Internet Watch Foundation and the Safer Internet Centre is to be applauded. But the resources available to support adult victims is woeful. Additional training for police is positive but victims need practical help to get material taken down. Not all ISPs, search engines or social media websites have developed policies and protocols. There is a strong argument for an expanded role for the Safer Internet Centre, a charity, funded by industry, an argument that I have taken to both industry and the minister responsible, Ed Vaizey.

I think John Cooper QC is partly right to say in his evidence to the Lords Select Committee that the internet itself has not invented new offences – after all, it is simply a channel of communication. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that, when it comes to the internet and social media, the law may not be correctly reflecting the true impact of a crime and the actual level of harm done to an individual. The law has to be able to respond and most importantly of all, this has to be done working with the industry itself.

18 comments for: Maria Miller MP: Posting revenge pornography should be reclassified as a form of sexual assault

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