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Down the rabbit-hole of cyberflashing

VoiceBox's response to the Law Commission Report

Social IssuesTech and the online worldSafety and crime
By VoiceBox ·


For young people, by young people.

Down the rabbit-hole of CyberFlashing - A response to the Law Commission Report

It seems to be understood around the world that flashing an unsuspecting (and unconsenting) individual is unacceptable behaviour, this much isn’t up for debate. The image of a man waiting under a street light in a long coat for a young woman to walk past is one that inspires discomfort, fear, and disgust amongst men and women across the world. Given this widely held view, one has to wonder why being sent unsolicited sexual images online is considered parr for the course on social media. Flashing has long been a crime in the UK, and in the era of MeToo, how has online flashing become such a commonplace behaviour?

Recently the UK Law Commission wrote a report on, amongst other things, cyberflashing, which culminated in a number of recommendations for laws to be established or altered to criminalise a set of behaviours that fall under the umbrella of cyberflashing. While this may seem like a step in the right direction (and it may well be), it opens up a minefield which must be navigated with caution and, in our view, with the guidance of young people, who are far more likely to be the victims of these new crimes.

One key element to any future discussions about cyberflashing is defining our terms. Is cyberflashing using AirDrop to send a nude picture to a stranger in a public place? What about in conversation with a friend or romantic partner? Am I being cyberflashed every time I see an explicit ad on a website? What if someone posts an explicit picture on their Snapchat story and makes it public? These behaviours are all very different and potentially harmful; however, it is extremely difficult to find the boundary between these behaviours and even more difficult to determine their relative harm.

To add another layer of complexity to this puzzle, we must consider intent. Is there a difference between sending an unsolicited nude image with the intent to threaten and intimidate rather than in the hopes of sparking some kind of sexual conversation or relationship? Once again, decisions must be made over whether these offences are equivalent, or whether the intent to cause harm is relevant to the legal ramifications.

The confusion doesn’t end there though. Is it still cyberflashing if you send an unsolicited naked picture of someone else? If not, then how can the photo be attributed to the sender? And what if the image has been edited or even created from scratch, either through drawing or computer generation? If you send someone an unsolicited link to some pornographic image, like some kind of x-rated rick-roll, is that cyber flashing? 

There is a common trend in conversations around tech that if something is illegal offline, it ought to be illegal online. This standard seems like a sensible idea on the face of it, but upon deeper digging, it becomes clear that, in many ways, the online landscape is incomparable to the offline world, and as such, trying to shoehorn online actions into offline legislation is an extremely messy task. There is clearly some harm being done by the sending and receiving of unsolicited nude images, and it is equally clear that steps need to be taken to mitigate those harms. It is not clear, however, what the ideal strategy to address this issue is. Do we need more legislation on individuals, or is this problem better solved by tech platforms? Are there some social changes that need to be made such that cyberflashing is no longer just another part of the internet? How have we even gotten to a point where the sending of nude images of each other is so commonplace that people are willing to send them to complete strangers?

Whatever the answers to these questions are, they can only be found with the guidance of the young people at the heart of this issue. And, while we would love more young voices to be involved at the legislative level, we would like to start the conversation here on VoiceBox. So if you have any ideas, suggestions, or even reports of your experiences, we’d love to hear them to make sure the conversation is heard. Reach out to us on our 'Get Involved' page.

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