Skip to main content

Online Harms: Intimate Images

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect those threatened with the sharing of intimate images online.

My Lords, we are committed to making the UK the safest place to be online and to introducing online harms legislation establishing a new duty of care on companies towards users. Activities involving sharing or threatening to share intimate images are captured by the existing offences tackling revenge pornography: harassment, malicious communications, blackmail and coercive or controlling behaviour. However, we have asked the Law Commission to review the law in this area to ensure that victims are properly protected.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but I do not think that it is clear that threats to share intimate images online are covered in law. We know that perpetrators of domestic abuse are increasingly using technology and the internet to abuse and control their partners and ex-partners. One in seven young women has experienced this form of abuse. The abuse is happening now. I urge Ministers to take the opportunity of the Domestic Abuse Bill arriving in our Chamber shortly to outlaw threats to share intimate images and not to wait for the Law Commission to report in due course.

At Report in the Commons, as my noble friend probably realises, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office set out the Government’s position in relation to existing offences and the need to consider carefully the outcome of the Law Commission’s comprehensive review of law in this area, but the Government will of course consider any similar amendments to that tabled in the Commons proposed in this House very carefully.

My Lords, eight months have now passed since the Government published their Online Harms White Paper. I expect that, as one of its authors, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes, must be a little frustrated at the non-appearance of the legislation it proposed. Does the Minister agree that the greatest threat to online safety is the reluctance of the social media companies to tackle the problem of anonymity, as this encourages people to post vile and hateful material about others without anyone knowing who they are? Will that be dealt with in the government Bill when it eventually appears?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The first response to the Online Harms White Paper came in February; the second is due at any time and then we intend to take those recommendations into legislation next year to alleviate these issues.

My Lords, it is all very well for the Minister to talk about the potential online harms Bill and the Law Commission review, but the problem is that this is an issue affecting a lot of women right now, this minute. She will be aware that Scotland led the way, so the entire United Kingdom is, as ever, doing it slightly differently. It is now illegal in Scotland. One result of Covid has been, as one would imagine, the breakdown of a lot of relationships. Since ex-partners are the primary abusers of online images, is there not a chance to do it now rather than wait for some indefinite point in the future?

My Lords, we are doing it now, with the revenge porn intimate offences that already exist in criminal law. Of course, we will keep a very close eye on how the digital world and IT are moving forward and we will continue, with the Law Commission, to look at these issues.

My Lords, are the Government as concerned as I am about the exponential rise in the use of deepfakes, which are currently overwhelmingly used in pornography? It means that an image can be created to humiliate a victim without that image being real. As my noble friend mentioned the Law Commission review, can the Government make sure that the Law Commission looks at the use of deepfakes and ensures that their malicious use is a sexual offence, so that the victim can remain anonymous, rather than an offence of malicious communications?

The Government absolutely agree that it is important to ensure that the criminal law keeps up with the constant changes in technology and the use of social media in all its forms. That is why the Law Commission’s review of the law relating to taking, making and sharing intimate images specifically includes deepfakes and the creation and dissemination of realistic, manipulative images within their terms of reference.

My Lords, last week the lead for the Crown Prosecution Service on rape said:

“Many teenagers believe that sending explicit photos or videos is part of everyday life.”

What are the Government doing to educate children to resist peer pressure to engage in such activity and to warn teenagers that these images can find their way on to pornography websites and, in the case of younger children, into the hands of paedophiles?

Education is absolutely key to this, which is why there is a new review into how we educate young people in the use of social media now and in the future, as things change. I am sorry that I did not get the second question but I will look in Hansard and write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s answer to my noble friend Lord Vaizey on deepfakes, but the Sensity AI report has found that tech is being used by a publicly available bot on Telegram to produce deepfakes by apparently undressing photos of clothed women. More than 100,000 women have been targeted and had faked images of them shared publicly. Some of these images appear to be underage, suggesting that the bot is being used to generate and share paedophilic content. I welcome the progress on revenge porn and up-skirting, and I accept the Minister’s comment, but the fact is that the Law Commission review will not report until 2021. There is not yet a specific offence in this area and we risk the tech running ahead of the law and women suffering, so may I press the Minister to take action on this as a matter of urgency? In the meantime, thousands more women and girls will run the risk of finding faked nude images of them irrevocably shared far and wide, and this is unacceptable.

On regulation, I quite agree with my noble friend. We intend to establish in law a new duty of care on companies to ensure that they have robust systems and processes in place to tackle illegal content of their services to keep their users, particularly children, safe.

My Lords, research by Refuge has shown that of women threatened with the release of images or video, 72% were blackmailed by a current or former partner. This is mental torture and domestic abuse. The law is not clear and the Law Commission report is months and months away. Why are the Government reluctant to create clarity and criminalise these threats in the Domestic Abuse Bill? Does she not agree that this Bill is an ideal opportunity to take urgent action on this issue so that victims can be protected sooner and decisively?

My Lords, the police and the courts are well equipped to deal with those who share or threaten to share intimate images, both online and offline. Perhaps the most significant development in this area was the creation of the revenge porn offence, which came into effect in 2005. That has a maximum prison sentence of two years. Since 2005, more than 700 people have been put in prison because of that law.

My Lords, surely the Minister agrees that all the questions raised today are very likely to be raised again when we have the Domestic Abuse Bill. That Bill is a suitable and very current vehicle with which to address those issues. Therefore, can the Minister undertake to look positively at any amendments tabled so that these scourges to our society—particularly to young women—can be addressed?

I have already given that undertaking. The Government will look at all the amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill put forward.

My Lords, if a teenager clicks on a shared link on a social media platform such as WhatsApp or TikTok, which takes them in turn to the illegal sharing of a rape of a 14 year-old girl on Pornhub, who is culpable right now, today, under the current law that has existed for quite a while—the teenager, their parents, WhatsApp, Pornhub, the ISP or the Government, who have promised urgent laws on harm and age but have so far failed to deliver?

My Lords, things move on very fast. Yes, I quite agree with the noble Baroness that everybody—the education system, the parents and, particularly, the online organisations—is responsible. That is why we will bring forward legislation on online harms very shortly.