Cyber flashing is set to be banned as part of the government’s online safety bill – how will this protect women online?
This offence is also expected to recognise how coercive behaviour and domestic abuse can manifest online. Again, women are disproportionately the victims of online domestic abuse, as research by Women’s Aid found that 85% of respondents said the abuse they received online from a partner or ex-partner was part of a pattern of abuse they also experienced offline.
The “A harm-based communications offence” is also designed to better support victims of domestic violence as it considers the potential harm to the victim, rather than just focusing on the alleged incident in isolation.
The bill also contains provisions to tackle prolific online scams such as romance fraud, which sees people (often women) manipulated into sending money to fake identities on dating apps” as well as harsher penalties for cyberflashing and revenge porn.
As with any legislation, the bill’s ability to actually protect women will depend on a number of extraneous factors. How will it be enforced? If the onus is on women and other marginalised communities to report harmful content, will they be taken seriously?
Encouragingly, the responsibility to address illegal content appears to lie firmly with tech firms, who will “need to make sure the features, functionalities and algorithms of their services are designed to prevent their users encountering them and minimise the length of time this content is available.”
The government press release adds, “This could be achieved by automated or human content moderation, banning illegal search terms, spotting suspicious users and having effective systems in place to prevent banned users opening new accounts.”
The bill is also set to protect children and other vulnerable groups from the promotion of self-harm online, as well as racist abuse and trolling, acting as a “digital seatbelt” that will make our time spent online safer. “If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing of countless generations of children,” Nadine Dorries has said on the subject.
“We don’t want our children taking their lives because the algorithms know who they are, they know they’re at home on their own and direct them into some very bad places.”
What have charities and experts said about how much this bill will protect us from cyberflashing?
The End Violence Against Women Coalition have accused the government of “failing to match rhetoric on violence against women and girls”. All words, not enough proposed action.
“The new criminal offence for cyberflashing will require the police and prosecutors to evidence a perpetrator’s intent to cause harm,” the coalition have said in a statement. “This is incredibly difficult to evidence and is effectively a loophole enabling perpetrators to avoid consequences, much as we see in other forms of image-based sexual abuse such as so-called ‘revenge porn’.
EVAW would like to see more focus on consent, seeing as cyberflashing is defined by its unsolicited nature. “The only relevant factor in this offence should be whether or not there was consent, given that we know image-based sexual abuse causes harm regardless of intention.”
The coalition is also concerned about whether the bill empowers investigations into cyberflashing enough, and whether it has given enough consideration of how offences like these may be “trivialised by police” and “used to disproportionately criminalise Black and minoritised communities”.
You can read more about the online safety bill here.
For more information about emotional abuse and domestic violence, you can call The Freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge on 0808 2000 247.
For more information about reporting and recovering from rape and sexual abuse, you can contact Rape Crisis.