In a landmark decision, the UK government has announced significant changes to the law on the sharing and posting of intimate images. These amendments, which will be included in the online safety bill, aim to provide stronger protection for victims of non-consensual image sharing, commonly referred to as “revenge porn.” The move follows years of advocacy by survivors and campaigners who have called for greater legal safeguards to prevent the violation of privacy and the resulting emotional distress.
The catalyst for this change came in 2015 when Keeley Richards-Shaw found herself thrust into the media spotlight. Her personal information, including her photo, occupation, and links to her Facebook page, were published without her consent. Richards-Shaw had just attended court proceedings against her ex-partner, who was sentenced for harassment and sharing explicit images without her permission. She described the experience as being “stalked by the media,” highlighting the additional trauma inflicted upon her.
At the time, the act of sharing intimate images without consent was not classified as a sexual offense, leaving survivors like Richards-Shaw without automatic anonymity. Recognizing the need for change, she became the first of many to raise her voice and demand legal reform. Collaborating with her local police and crime commissioner, she initiated a campaign that gained momentum, ultimately leading to this momentous decision.
Public support for automatic anonymity for victims was overwhelming, with a survey revealing that 75% of respondents favored this safeguard. Stories from other victims further underscored the urgent need for change. Many expressed their reluctance to report the crime to the police due to the absence of anonymity, while those who had gone through the legal process spoke of the devastating impact of publicity, which compounded the trauma they had already endured.
The amended online safety bill addresses these concerns by making the sharing of intimate images without consent a sexual offense. This crucial step ensures that victims are granted automatic anonymity, shielding them from further harm. Additionally, the legislation removes the burden of proof regarding the offender’s intent to cause distress, streamlining the legal process for victims. Another important provision of the bill criminalizes the sharing of deepfake porn, an emerging threat amplified by advances in AI technology.
The reclassification of sharing intimate images as a sexual offense is a long-overdue recognition of the harm inflicted upon victims. Campaigners and researchers have long advocated for this change, citing examples such as the 2014 incident involving actor Jennifer Lawrence, who labeled the hacking and dissemination of her private photos as a “sex crime.” Deborah, another survivor whose images were shared non-consensually, aptly described it as a “digital version” of rape.
Research also revealed the need to eliminate the “motivation threshold” requirement, which compelled prosecutors to prove that perpetrators intended to cause distress. This hurdle often resulted in low prosecution rates and cases being dropped by the police. The removal of this threshold, tirelessly championed by activists like Georgie Matthews, paves the way for increased accountability and the prosecution of various forms of image-based sexual abuse.
To better reflect the impact on victims, the term “image-based sexual abuse” was coined by experts Erika Rackley and their colleague. This terminology aims to move away from the victim-blaming connotations associated with the term “revenge porn” and highlight the range of consequences endured by survivors. By widening the scope of the legislation, the law will now encompass cases beyond those explicitly intended to cause distress, including the prevalent “collector culture” in which explicit images are shared and traded in online groups.
Notably, the new legislation also addresses the growing concern of “deepfake porn,” where AI technology is used to manipulate ordinary images into explicit and pornographic content. While the creation of such material is already deemed illegal, the online safety bill now criminalizes the act of sharing deepfake porn, acknowledging the dangerous implications of this disturbing trend.
The experiences of survivors, such as Sarah and artist-campaigner Helen Mort, have shed light on the profound impact of deepfake porn and the urgent need for legal changes. These changes represent a significant victory for victims, as their voices and experiences are finally being heard and validated.
However, despite the progress made, there are still crucial gaps in the protection of victims. The legislation currently focuses on images considered “intimate,” excluding situations where non-consensual sharing could still pose a threat to the subject, such as in the case of a Muslim woman photographed without a headscarf against the expectations of her family or community.
Furthermore, victims’ primary desire is often the removal of the material from the internet. Unfortunately, the reforms do not grant courts the power to compel platforms to take down the images or to require perpetrators to delete the content, as is the case in several other countries. A comprehensive and holistic response is needed to ensure victims receive justice and support to rebuild their lives.
While the changes introduced by the online safety bill mark a crucial step forward, this fight for justice and protection is far from over. The UK must continue to strive for a comprehensive legal framework that leaves no room for the violation of privacy and the subsequent harm caused by non-consensual image sharing.