Online Anonymity and Anonymous Abuse

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:51 pm on 24th March 2021.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 3:51 pm, 24th March 2021

I join colleagues in congratulating Siobhan Baillie on securing the debate and opening it so effectively. As the debate has illustrated, online and anonymous abuse takes many forms, and it is constantly evolving.

One form that was new to me last year was when my constituent, Helen Mort, told me of the harrowing time that she had faced because of the actions of someone online who is still unknown despite their cruel behaviour. She told me of her shock and fear when she learned that non-sexual images of her had been uploaded to a porn website, the users of which were then invited to edit the photos, merging Helen’s face with explicit and violent sexual images.

Deepfakes were made by unknown people from original, non-intimate images taken from Helen’s social media without her consent and superimposed on sexual content. When she spoke to the police about the images, she was told that they could not act because there was no crime. In England and Wales, under section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 it is an offence to non-consensually distribute a private sexual photograph or film with the intent to cause distress to the person depicted. There is no offence if the original image is not private or sexual.

Clearly, that leaves people vulnerable to online abuse, suffering humiliation and distress, while the perpetrators of such acts can rest easy, knowing that there is no criminal offence for which they can be charged. The call for evidence in the Government’s recently reopened consultation on violence against women and girls is comprehensive in covering many types of online and image-based abuse, but it omits the creation of deepfakes. I hope that the Minister will agree with and pass on my concerns about that omission, and ask that it is included in the Government’s consideration of the issues.

I have discussed the matter with Mrs Miller, who I understand cannot be present because she is chairing another debate. She has done important work on this issue, and I know that she shares my concerns. When the online harms Bill eventually arrives, we must look to it to outlaw the making, taking and sharing of intimate images without consent.

Although the delay to the Bill has been frustrating, it will enable us to take account of the Law Commission’s current review on this area, which is due to be published later this year. I hope that the Minister, when winding up, will agree that when the Bill comes forward it must be used as a vehicle for implementing improvements to the law to protect people in a position like Helen’s.