We are living in an increasingly interconnected world where the diversity and immediacy of information on the Internet is essentially limitless. The web is a powerful and multi-purpose tool; on the one hand, it can liberate, permitting wider virtual communities, equal access to information and expression for anyone with a broadband connection. On the other, it can oppress, allowing governments and companies to know more and more about what was once private and exploit this for their own scarcely regulated purposes, and for anonymous strangers – good, bad and indifferent - to reach into our living rooms.
Lately the news has been full of striking examples of how the Internet has been turned into a potent tool to abuse women; providing perpetrators with the anonymity to remotely stalk, harass, extort or post indecent images that are instantly available to the world and extremely difficult to take down. The UK Crown Prosecution Service noted in a recent report, detailing a record increase in the number of people prosecuted for violence against women and girls, that the use of the Internet to target women is a common motif.
We see this in our legal practice all the time. Revenge porn and extortion, stalking and harassment are easier to commit if the perpetrator can strike from afar with a few keystrokes and thinks he's anonymous. I'm glad prosecutors are paying more attention to this. I'd also like to see the law changed to permit victims to sue their perpetrators for damages, because prosecutors will never have enough resources to take on all these cases and we need more avenues to bring this under control.
The CPS report also notes that the rise in prosecutions and convictions seems to be “a result of more victims having the confidence to come forward”. While the Internet does give new advantages to people who want to harass and bully at a distance, this kind of misuse also leaves police and prosecutors digital crumbs they can follow back to identify the perpetrators.
With this in mind, the CPS is revising its guidance for prosecutors by reminding them that restraining orders applicable in the ‘real world’ are also valid on a virtual level. This can be used to prevent perpetrators posting things hostile to victims, or replying when victims try to defend themselves online. New criminal laws were introduced in April 2015 on revenge pornography, rape pornography and grooming.
Google is also beginning to recognise that its search engine is being abused by perpetrators to hurt women. Amit Singhal, Senior Vice President of Google Search, recently announced that Google will now honour requests from victims to take down nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results. Although this will not eliminate the explicit images from the actual websites, the fact that Google will no longer link to them will sharply curtail their power to harm.
I think we have to attack these problems on a broad front, because the Internet is powerful and ever-changing. In addition to giving revenge porn and cyberbullying victims the power to sue perpetrators for civil damages, which could help supplement the overstretched resources of prosecutors, I’d like victims to have the power to force websites to take down non-consensual intimate images similar to the respect websites now show “takedown” notices for copyright infringement – these are often honoured within hours. There are already powerful mechanisms for taking down child porn – why can’t a similar system be used for intimate adult images unless consent to their posting by those depicted is clearly demonstrated, say by a video attached where those involved say so, and show ID?
Of course we have to protect free speech, but posting a naked picture of your ex-girlfriend with the caption “Jane will f*** anyone for drugs” and giving her email address and phone number (true story of one of our clients) is not the kind of speech that deserves protection.