Maria Miller is MP for Basingstoke.
The internet is undeniably a force for good in the world and when it comes to law-making the Government has been right to be cautious, preferring to use the mantra of ‘what’s illegal off line is illegal online, too’.
Yet as this global, multi billion dollar business matures it is starting to challenge our concept of what is decent and perhaps even what should be lawful. In this new world of instant, indelible, mass communication even the most ardent geek would agree that the online world can no longer be treated as the ‘wild west’ where anything goes.
But where do the boundaries lie?
The industry’s robust response to illegal child abuse images demonstrates that this maturing industry has understood the need to identify those legal boundaries and to act quickly.
The difficulties come when the law is less clear.
In the last two years numerous states in the US have been forced to pass legislation, to protect private citizens from the growing problem of ‘revenge pornography’ – where private and intimate pictures taken as part of a relationship end up online after that relationship ends, with devastating results.
New figures just released by police forces in England show the number of people affected by ‘revenge pornography’ in the UK is far greater than previously thought and that the majority of these victims are not protected under the law.
A Freedom of Information request has revealed that in eight police forces there have been 149 victims of ‘revenge pornography’ who have asked the police for help, yet only six cautions or charges have been made.
Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan, who leads on harassment and stalking in England and Wales, is clear that ‘revenge pornography’ is not currently recognised as a crime in this country.
Some say that the internet has created no new crimes, saying it’s just a new medium through which the same old crimes are committed. Certainly that was the evidence given to the House of Lords Communications Committee when they held a short hearing into ‘revenge pornography’ over the summer. The committee concluded that no new law is needed. Perhaps if they had been advised to ask the police for the recently released figures, or to speak to the groups supporting victims, they may have drawn different conclusions.
Posting sexual images online, without the consent of the person depicted, is a more accurate way to describe ‘revenge pornography’. The existing mishmash of legislation does not provide protection, as the police figures demonstrate. Not all cases involve domestic violence, harassment or stalking. The images may not be judged as indecent or grossly offensive as set out in the Malicious Communications Act. They do, however, violate the fundamental principle of sexual autonomy clearly set out under the Sexual Offences Act, passed years before online ‘revenge pornography’ was dreamt up as a way of attacking its victim.
Most victims just want the material to be removed so they can get on with their lives. The Internet Service Providers however, need clarity in the law so they can have protocols in place for removing what should be illegal material.
In October there is an opportunity to give that clarity and make a change in the law – to send a message loud and clear to the perpetrators of this horrendous crime, that in posting such images online they risk a serious criminal record. The Justice and Sentencing Bill should be amended as it passes through the Lords to make posting ‘revenge pornography’ a criminal offence. I would like the offence of posting this material to sit along side voyeurism in the 2003 Sexual Offences Act to stop this emerging crime in its tracks.