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‘Cyberflashing’ and other online offences targeted for law reforms

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Online victims of abusive messages or emails including ‘cyberflashing’ and ‘pile-on harassment’ could soon receive better protection from their attackers under new proposals from the Law Commission.

The body defines cyberflashing as the “unsolicited sending of images or video recordings of one’s genitals”, which it says should be included as a sexual offence, and pile-on harassment is when a number of different individuals send harassing communications to a victim.

The Law Commission, which frequently advises Parliament on making changes to the legal system, says that existing communications offences have not kept pace with changes in how we communicate since the advent of widespread internet access, and the above offences are not covered by previous regulations.

It adds that in some cases current laws fail to address harmful behaviours online, and in others they risk interfering with rights surrounding freedom of expression.

It is recommending that messages that would be likely to cause harm should be criminalised; this would include those sent over social media and services like WhatsApp, as well as emails.

Currently, communications sent over private networks such as Bluetooth or a local intranet are not covered by harassment rules; these would also be added in the new proposals.

The commission proposes changes to the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003 to criminalise behaviour where a communication would likely cause harm.

It is also recommended that cyberflashing be included as a sexual offence under Section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Professor Penney Lewis, Criminal Law Commissioner, said: “As the internet and social media have become an everyday part of our lives, the amount of abuse has also risen. Unfortunately, the law has not kept up and isn’t giving victims the protection they need.

“Our proposals will tackle this harmful behaviour whilst also ensuring that we protect people’s freedom of speech.”

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Online communication has been a lifeline for many in recent months but it should not be a refuge for abusive, harmful or criminal behaviour.

“I thank the Law Commission for its review and look forward to seeing the final recommendations on its proposed reforms to criminal law next year.

“We will soon introduce new legislation to put more responsibility on companies so they have the right systems in place to protect people online.”

In January, the NSPCC said that roughly ninety cyber-crimes a day are committed against children.

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