Cyber-flashing

– in Westminster Hall at 4:37 pm on 25th January 2022.

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Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire 4:37 pm, 25th January 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of cyberflashing-related harms.

It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Mr Gray. Let me start by explaining the perverse act of cyber-flashing. In essence, it is where a person is sent an unsolicited sexual image. There are two currents to this, and the first is through social media. More often than not, indecent images are persistently sent to Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter accounts. The second, more perverse angle, is where an image is received in a public place on someone’s device, just because their Bluetooth or AirDrop happens to be on. It often happens in public places such as on trains and buses or in lecture halls, where someone is in close proximity to people they do not know. It happens to men and women of all ages, and, sadly, is only increasing.

Cyber-flashing can be intimidating and distressing but, more than that, if someone receives an indecent image from a stranger in a public place, they are in a very vulnerable position. They are often alone with their perpetrator. Sometimes, the perpetrator is there, deliberately watching them, waiting for their reaction. It is a way of creating anxiety, a feeling of being watched and lack of safety, with the inherent threat that it could be followed up by a physical act of sexual harassment or violence.

There is evidence that cyber-flashing in this way is a gateway offence to more serious acts of violence. The man who killed Sarah Everard was accused of flashing before he went on to commit his horrific crime. It is time we made cyber-flashing a criminal offence on a par with its physical counterpart, to ensure the law catches up with technology.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

My hon. Friend has done incredible work highlighting the seriousness of cyber-flashing. Does she agree that it needs to be a specific criminal offence, alongside public sexual harassment? I would love to hear the Minister’s views on that.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

I thank the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee not just for her intervention, but for her work in this area. I agree with her, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response later on.

At present, if someone is a victim of cyber-flashing the avenues to seek justice are limited at best. The Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981, which criminalises the public display of indecent matter, is little known and likely to be little used. Laws on image-based sexual abuse are not based on an understanding of power and entitlement as the factors behind sexual harassment. They focus too narrowly on perpetrator motivations and do not provide the protection of anonymity for complainants, which I think is crucial.

Cyber-flashing is not an entirely new or recent problem. I am not the first to raise the need to criminalise cyber-flashing in this place. I pay tribute to hon. Friends who have partnered with the magazine Grazia, including my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller who has endorsed this campaign.

Since I have started talking about making cyber-flashing an offence in its own right, I have received not just many messages of support, but countless emails and social media messages from women who have been subjected to this cruel act. I pay particular tribute to the television actor and personality, Emily Atack, who was invited to Parliament by my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie to talk about her experiences. I explained that I had sent her a message on Instagram asking to work with her on this campaign; she apologised to me, explaining that she never saw the message because her account is deluged with indecent images. I congratulate Emily, and others, for having the courage to speak out.

One field in which cyber-flashing is extremely common is online dating apps. I have been working with the app Bumble, which says that cyber-flashing is shockingly prevalent in the UK and disproportionately affects young women. According to a Bumble survey, in the past year alone 48% of millennial women said that they had been sent an unsolicited sexual image. One in four of those surveyed found that the prevalence of unsolicited lude images had got worse during the covid-19 pandemic, while one in three believed that cyber-flashing had become part and parcel of online behaviour. I do not know about you, Mr Gray, but I find that shocking. If we can agree on one thing this afternoon, it is that the unsolicited sharing of lewd images is not a part of normal courtship.

Education is one way in which we can seek to address this growing problem—making young people aware of the harm that this act can inflict on someone. This is already happening, thanks to campaign-led organisations such as Brook, which provide relationships and sex advice in schools throughout England and Wales. Its campaigners are also spending this freezing-cold Tuesday afternoon sitting on College Green with their advertising van. I encourage all Members, if they have a moment, to go and show their support for the campaign to ban cyber-flashing. I credit them for being hardy enough to stay there all afternoon.

Brook’s campaign to raise awareness of the harm caused by cyber-flashing is based on changing people’s behaviour and educating around consent. It is illegal to send someone younger than 18 an indecent image, yet almost half of millennial women who have received such an image were younger than 18 the first time that it happened. This figure rises to 71% when looking at 18 to 24-year-olds. What is illegal offline should be illegal online, and the law needs strengthening to achieve that. In June 2018, the Government introduced the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019, which sought to make upskirting a specific criminal offence. This is a prime example of how the law is involved in catching up with technological advancement.

Photo of Ruth Edwards Ruth Edwards Conservative, Rushcliffe

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on her fantastic campaign. She is talking about the law keeping up; it seems to me that one of the key problems when it comes to offences using digital technology is the speed with which criminals exploit technology—in this case to sexually harass people, and mainly women—far outstrips the speed of our legislative process. While it is important that we get things right, does my hon. Friend agree that we need to take steps to speed up our response to new sexual offences such as upskirting, threats to share intimate images and cyber-flashing, so that we can better protect people sooner?

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. This is an area where Government and technology companies need to work hand in hand and at pace, in order to catch up. Until the specific offence of upskirting was properly legislated for, the best alternative offence of outraging public decency was used to prosecute offenders. Victims deserve better.

In 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee recommended that cyber-flashing must be addressed by Government. It said:

“The Government should introduce a new law on image-based sexual abuse which criminalises all non-consensual creation and distribution of intimate sexual images, including altered images, and threats to do so. This should be a sexual offence based on the victim’s lack of consent and not on perpetrator motivation, and include an automatic right to life-long anonymity for the complainant, as with other sexual offences.”

Four years on, if the Government want to make their Online Safety Bill a gold standard for internet safety—I commend their ambition—they must include legislation against cyber-flashing. I was concerned by the report published yesterday by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which said that, as currently drafted, it is not robust enough to tackle some forms of illegal and harmful content.

The Online Safety Bill is the vehicle to give victims the power to seek prosecution and hold perpetrators to account for their actions. That has been backed by the draft Bill Committee, and by the Law Commission’s recommendations. I was delighted at the end of last year when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when questioned by my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, agreed that cyber-flashing should be a criminal offence. That was later echoed by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. We are on the right track, but I press the Minister to go as far as she can, and to say when we can see more detail of the Online Safety Bill.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud

I thank my hon. Friend for all that she is doing. As we know that most cyber-flashing is sent from anonymous accounts, making it scarier, particularly when the perpetrator might be in the same vicinity as the victim, does my hon. Friend agree that tackling anonymity online and anonymous abuse is a key part of dealing with cyber-flashing, as is being able to track perpetrators?

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

We are in danger of all agreeing with each other, which is a very good thing. I pay particular credit to my hon. Friend, who has done so much work on anonymity through her ten-minute rule Bill. That is crucial. Social media companies also have a huge role to play in this.

Going back to the point on consent, which I touched on earlier, I put on the record my thanks to Professor Clare McGlynn, who has been a leading figure in the campaign to legislate for a consent-based offence. It is critical that any new law is comprehensive, covering all forms of cyber-flashing, and therefore giving all victims the reassurance they need.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate; we all wait for the Minister’s response. She touched on the issue of a consent-based approach. That touches on the core wrong, which is that it is a non-consensual sexual act. Does she join me in urging the Minister to look at what is happening in Texas, California, New York, Virginia and Wisconsin, all of which are adopting a consent-based approach when legislating for this offence?

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Looking through the prism of consent empowers victims and lowers the threshold for people to take this forward. Consent is extremely important. The lawful consensual sharing of images between adults is fine and appropriate if it involves free choice, but it is important to recognise when that crosses the line, and that is through consent.

To my hon. Friend’s point, a consent-based offence covers all forms of cyber-flashing, regardless of the motives of the sender. Motive requirements create an unjustified hierarchy of abuses and victims, which does not reflect victims’ experiences. Technology companies, the media, politicians and employers all have a part to play in developing policies and practices to challenge everyday sexism, structural sexism and harmful sexual behaviours.

I want to point out the work that Bumble is doing. Bumble is a dating app on which women initiate the conversation, and its ethos is around protecting those who use the app. Not only does Bumble have a one-strike-and-out policy for people who are reported for lewd activity, but it has “private detector” technology that recognises and blurs explicit images, and offers recipients the chance to view the images or block the senders. That is industry-leading technology, and I commend those at Bumble for taking that approach. They have been involved in other initiatives around the world, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said.

I had best draw my remarks to a close because I know that we all want to hear from the Minister. It is imperative that we criminalise cyber-flashing in England and Wales as soon as possible. Every day without an offence in place means that victims are denied an effective route to justice. Let us lead the way by continuing the progress that the Government have already made, and make cyber-flashing illegal once and for all.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement 4:50 pm, 25th January 2022

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray? Thank you for your munificence in holding on until I raced my way here this afternoon.

I also thank my hon. Friend Fay Jones for securing the debate and for all her work on this vital issue since entering Parliament. Looking at my right hon. and hon. Friends across the Chamber, I genuinely see a group of very, very committed female parliamentarians who are doing everything that they can from the Back Benches to ensure that women and girls are protected in our society. I will try to reference them in my response.

I reiterate the horror set out by my hon. Friend in some of the experiences that we know about through campaigning organisations such as Brook. Women travelling on public transport or just going about their day-to-day lives can have such images thrust upon them and inserted into their lives without any consent.

My right hon. Friend Mrs Miller raised the absolutely valid point of consent. Indeed, she has been doing really groundbreaking work in highlighting the threat of deep fake pornography. Sadly, I think that we are only just beginning to see the potential and pernicious effect of that form of pornography. My right hon. Friend is very much leading the campaigning and raising awareness of those new ways in which criminals and others are using the internet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire quoted the Prime Minister’s response to a question about cyber-flashing from my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes during a sitting of the Liaison Committee. He said:

“I don’t care whether flashing is cyber or not, it should be illegal.”

In his own inimitable way, he has set out the Government’s approach to cyber-flashing. We absolutely support the development of such an offence, and we are carefully considering an offence along the lines of that proposed by the Law Commission.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire asked whether the Online Safety Bill might be the vehicle through which that law was brought about. We are actively looking at that, but we very much understand the need for speed and, indeed, the wish of women and girls around the country for the issue to be dealt with quickly and effectively.

As my hon. Friend set out, criminal offences that may serve to deal with such situations already exist, and she listed a few of them. We recognise, however, the potential problems that may limit the application of some of those offences. In our discussions, the police and Crown Prosecution Service raised the practical difficulties of using section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, for example, because that particular offence requires that the genitals exposed are those of the offender. That may of course be very difficult to prove. In a situation where a woman received such a photograph on a crowded bus or tube carriage, for example, it would be an almost impossible element to prove, by definition. As such, we understand that there is a need to change the law, and also to reflect on the impact that these images can have on women and girls going about their business day to day. They may be distressed, worried, humiliated or frightened. Imagine a 15-year-old girl getting a bus home from school on a dark winter’s night, and this image pops up on her phone. She will be worrying, I would imagine, about what will happen to her when she gets off that bus to make her journey home. We absolutely understand that.

That is why, as a result of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and others, as well as wider concerns about the development of new technology and how it is being used by perpetrators to commit offences, we wanted to understand whether the law as it is has kept pace with modern behaviour. It is why we asked the Law Commission to review the law on harmful online communications, to ensure that if change is needed, we do so in the right way. It reported last year, and I am extremely grateful to the Law Commission for that report, which recommended, among other things, a new criminal offence relating to cyber-flashing.

It is worth noting—indeed, my hon. Friend, in her usual thorough manner, did exactly this—that the offence of cyber-flashing is increasing in prevalence. According to the British Transport police, there were 66 reports of cyber-flashing in 2019, compared with 34 in 2018 and just three in 2016. Of course, as campaigns such as that of my hon. Friend get more traction, we are very alive to the risk that we will hear of more instances, because women and girls will know that they are not the only ones suffering these incidents and will, I hope, have the confidence to report them to the police. Having commissioned the Law Commission review, we are now working to ensure that we can change the law to reflect the realities of life in the 21st century.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, in her usual thorough and rightly pressing way, invited me to discuss the issue of public sexual harassment. Again, through the tackling violence against women and girls strategy, we have looked at that phenomenon, because we hear from campaigners that they believe that not just the nature but the frequency of such incidents has got worse and more prevalent over time. We keep under review the existing offences that are in place, but I know that my right hon. Friend will continue to be a strong advocate for a change to the law in this area.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

Will the Minister briefly reflect on the fact that it is not just campaigners, me and Members from across the House who are calling for a change in the law, but the Law Commission?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Indeed. I was just about to say that my right hon. Friend has been joined by excellent company in the form of the Law Commission. She will, I am sure, appreciate that we are taking a little bit of time to consider this issue carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire spoke about the Online Safety Bill being the perfect vehicle for such a change in the law. As she would expect, we are working closely with our DCMS colleagues to explore the potential of that. Reference was made to the Women and Equalities Committee report that was published this week, and we invited the House to join us in drafting that Bill through pre-legislative scrutiny. My hon. Friend will know that a Joint Committee reviewed it very carefully and, of course, all of those considerations will be taken into account as DCMS takes the Bill forward.

My hon. Friend Ruth Edwards made the fair point that while the Government look to legislate in due course, there is nothing to prevent internet companies from acting now. We should absolutely encourage these tech companies to consider their own moral duties to the public. They do not need to wait for us to pass a law: they can do the right and decent thing to stop women and girls suffering this sort of behaviour.

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and every colleague who has joined us this afternoon that we are actively and carefully considering the Law Commission’s recommendation on cyber-flashing, and are looking to identify a legislative vehicle as we aim to introduce a new, specific offence to criminalise it.

Question put and agreed to.