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With image-based sexual abuse (revenge porn) up 31%, what can victims do to get justice?   

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In November 2023, Sky News reported on the state of ‘revenge porn’ in the UK. Focusing on the work of the Revenge Porn Helpline, journalist Dan Whitehead looked at what can happen when someone uploads private, often sexual, content online without consent, and the devastation image-based sexual abuse is causing across the UK. 

It’s a worrying report. Not least because it states that calls to the helpline are on the rise. Indeed, according to Sky News, in the first nine months of 2023, the number of phone calls and online reports to the helpline was more than 10,000, already above 2022’s total of 8,924. The number of phone calls is 31% higher than the same period last year. 

What does the law say?

In December 2015, revenge porn became illegal in England and Wales, punishable by up to two years in prison. But, to achieve a conviction, prosecutors had to prove that the perpetrators shared the sexual images or films with the intention to cause distress.  

Since then, amendments to the Online Safety Bill (which achieved Royal Assent in October 2023) saw the government tighten the legislation on sharing intimate images without consent. As a result, it is now easier to convict people who commit such crimes by removing the need for lawyers to prove the intention of distress. Those found guilty of this so-called “base offence” now face a maximum penalty of six months jail time. 

But despite the changes to the law, thousands of intimate pictures and videos are still being shared online without the consent of the people in them. Pursuing a criminal prosecution for intimate-image abuse remains challenging. Not least because this may involve reporting a person with whom you likely once had a trusting relationship.  

What’s more, whilst a successful criminal prosecution may lead to imprisonment or a fine, victims of image-based sexual abuse are unlikely to secure any financial redress for the harm they have suffered. This means they are rarely compensated for any psychiatric damage, loss of earnings, or reputational harm experienced. In response, we believe that the adult websites and social media platforms publishing these images must do more to protect victims. 

Asking an online platform to remove an intimate image

If someone has posted your intimate image online without your consent, we strongly advise that you report it to the platform(s) that have published it. Sites like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have strict policies regarding adult content, and while there is still some way to go, they are getting better at enforcing these. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that the platforms will agree to requests to take the images (or videos) down. 

Talking about this matter, Kingsley Hayes, Head of Data & Privacy Legislation at Keller Postman UK, said: “Whilst platforms such as Meta do have rules regarding sharing non-consensual intimate imagery, more often than not they fall short. Our data protection solicitors have seen firsthand how difficult it is for those affected to get the offending videos or images removed.  

“In emails disclosed as part of a US action against MindGeek (now Aylo), it came to light that the company only had one person reviewing flagged videos on the adult sites, and there was a backlog of over 700,000 videos which needed reviewing. Other platforms likely have similar structures in place, leaving victims of image-based sexual abuse with limited choices when images are uploaded without their consent. In some instances where the platform has failed to assist them, victims have been left with no option but to negotiate directly with those who uploaded the images in the first place, causing significant levels of additional distress.” 

If a platform fails to take the images down, what can you do to compel them to do so?

If a platform refuses to remove your photo/video, you could seek legal representation (either via a solicitor or with the help of the Citizens Advice Bureau). The websites might be more willing to help if you tell them that the images are part of a criminal investigation, and if not, a court order could force them to remove the content. And there may be another way to get justice.  

In the UK, there are strict rules about how organisations can process (collect, store, use, and share) personal data. By publishing intimate images without consent, the sites that use them are likely breaching UK GDPR. You might be able to claim for misuse of private information and breach of confidence, as well as for breaches of UK data protection laws. And, if the misuse of these personal images causes harm, victims could be entitled to thousands of pounds in compensation.  

Claiming against adult websites and social media platforms that wrongfully publish intimate images without consent could make them stop and think about doing so in future. At the very least, the threat of having to make a financial payout will likely encourage website owners to take contested images down. Because it is only when the platforms start to be held liable that they will begin to make the necessary changes. 

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