Secretly videoing or taking photographs of people under their clothes or sharing “deepfake” pornography without consent could lead to prison sentences of up to three years, under recommendations by the Law Commission of England and Wales.
The reforms broaden the scope of criminal law to protect victims from having intimate images taken or shared without their consent, practices known as downblousing and upskirting, or having their faces superimposed on pornographic images and circulated without their agreement.
But campaigners say the reforms do not go far enough and the government is making a “grave mistake” in not taking a tougher stance.
“Sharing intimate images of a person without their consent can be incredibly distressing and harmful for victims, with the experience often scarring them for life,” said Prof Penney Lewis, the law commissioner for criminal law.
Lewis said these offenses were currently dealt with under a “patchwork” of criminal offenses that had not kept pace with technology. Gaps in the law enable perpetrators to evade prosecution.
“Current laws on taking or sharing sexual or nude images of someone without their consent are inconsistent, based on a narrow set of motivations and do not go far enough to cover disturbing and abusive new behaviors born in the smartphone era,” she said.
The new legal framework, which follows a detailed review, would extend the law, broadening the scope of offenses so that anyone who intentionally takes or shares intimate images without consent is criminalised, regardless of their motivation.
The law would also be simplified, making it easier to secure prosecutions for a wider range of behaviours. Sentences will be tougher: up to three years’ imprisonment for the most serious abuses.
The recommendations also update the law to cover more modern forms of abuse that are currently not offenses. For example, under current law, while upskirting and voyeurism are criminalised, “downblousing” is not. Nor is the sharing of altered intimate images of people without their consent, including pornographic deepfakes and “nudified” images.
The reforms also recommend offering lifetime anonymity to all victims of abuse.
Emily Hunt, a campaigner for victims of sexual offenses and ab independent adviser to the Ministry of Justice, said the reforms were a vital step for securing greater protection for victims.
“Taking or sharing sexual or nude images of someone without their consent can disrupt lives and inflict lasting damage,” she said. “A change in the law is long overdue and it’s right that under these proposals, all perpetrators of these acts would face prosecution.”
But Vanessa Morse, the CEO of Cease (Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation), said more needed to be done. “The law must also clamp down on the high volume of nonconsensual content appearing on pornography websites,” she said. “We know that the pornography industry cannot be trusted to self-regulate and it has facilitated and profited from this horrific practice for years.
“Crucially, pornography platforms must be made, by law, to verify the age and consent of those featured in uploads. This is the only way that nonconsensual material will be prevented from being uploaded in the first place, and it has already been adopted as a policy by Mastercard. The government has the opportunity to impose these changes on the pornography industry through the online safety bill, but it is currently choosing not to. This is a grave mistake.”