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One of the many unfortunate side effects of life in lockdown has been an increase in online abuse, with police, cybersecurity firms and charities alike reporting an increase in online stalking and harassment, as well as a surge in cases of revenge porn. Lockdowns cause internet use and screen time to increase, while making it harder for victims to conceal their location or avoid social media. As a result, not only is online abuse more frequent, but its effects even can be even more devastating.

So far in this series we have looked at the steps you can take to prevent or combat online harassment and prevent and combat online stalking. Our final article below, deals with how to remove or take action against revenge porn.

Part 3: taking action against revenge porn

According the UK’s revenge porn helpline, cases have surged during lockdown, with a 98 per cent increase in cases in April 2020 compared with the same month the previous year, and 2020 becoming the busiest year on record. Revenge porn was already a serious problem before the pandemic. In December, Pornhub removed millions of videos after an exposé in the New York Times about the number of non-consensual videos on its site. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 lockdown has made things worse. An increase in online relationships and internet usage had made people more vulnerable to blackmail and revenge porn. With restrictions on movement making it difficult to harass ex-partners in person, perpetrators may also be more reliant on online forms of abuse. 

1. What is revenge porn?

Revenge porn is a criminal offence which involves revealing private sexual images or videos of an individual without their consent, in order to cause them distress. Revenge porn is often preceded by blackmail (where the perpetrator threatens to release private sexual footage unless their demands are met). Revenge porn can be disclosed in many forms, including by text or email to an individual’s friends and family, posted on social media or uploaded to pornographic websites.

2. How to respond to blackmail and revenge porn

Both blackmail and revenge porn are criminal offences under the Theft Act 1968 and Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 respectively. Disclosing or threatening to disclose private sexual images may also amount to an offence under the Communications Act 2003. Regardless of whether the private images or videos were taken willingly, they cannot be shared without consent. If a person is threatened with or becomes the victim of revenge porn, they can report this to the police who may be able to seize the relevant footage from the person responsible and take action against them. As explained below, there are also civil remedies that can be pursued.

Unfortunately, unlike other sexual offences, when prosecuting individuals for revenge porn, the identity of the victim is not hidden and can be reported (although this rarely happens in practice). This can make victims reluctant to go down the criminal route. However, civil action can be taken against the perpetrator, in which case the victim can request anonymity from the courts. This could include seeking compensation for harassment and securing an injunction or non-molestation order which prevents, for example, the perpetrator from contacting the victim in future or posting the offending footage online. These court orders are usually accompanied by a penal notice which means that the perpetrator can be prosecuted if they breach the order by harassing the victim again or posting more material. The victim can also rely on these orders to have the material swiftly removed from the internet.

As with all forms of online harassment, ensuring that individuals have strong privacy and security settings in place and taking care with what they themselves post online will make it harder for abusive individuals to make threats, tag the person in explicit content or share it with their friends and colleagues. Responding to any threat or breach of privacy quickly will also help to prevent the perpetrator’s actions from having potentially devastating effects.

3. How to remove revenge porn from the internet

In addition to constituting a criminal offence, revenge porn is likely to amount to a breach of personal data. It is also against the policies of most online platforms and pornographic websites to share non-consensual sexual content. This provides the victim with several legal avenues to get the content removed. A request can be immediately made to remove the content from any platform it is posted on, relying on their policies and/or the victim’s rights as appropriate. Most websites have online tools which allow unlawful content to be reported quickly. If not, a formal request can be made for the urgent removal of the content under data protection law.

If a victim has secured a court order against the perpetrator, this can be relied upon as well. A request should also be made that profiles used by the perpetrator to upload the content are disabled. If the victim took the images or recorded the video, they are likely to be the copyright owner of the image/footage and can additionally request the removal of the content on copyright grounds.

It is important to preserve evidence of what was posted, and any threats received, before starting the removal process, so that action can be taken against the perpetrator.

Once aware of revenge porn, it is important to act quickly as the footage can spread to other websites and even after it is removed, cached images may still appear online. Where this has happened, tools such as reverse image searching can help to track down all instances of the footage online. A request can then be made to remove live content at source, as well as any cached images or references to the footage which are appearing in Google search results. If appropriate, Google Alerts or other online monitoring services can be used, so that any further uploads are detected and removed swiftly. By taking proactive action in response to threats or posts of abusive content, harm can be minimised, while providing greater protection from further harassment.

Revenge porn causes understandable emotional turmoil and can be very difficult to deal with, but failing to act can be even more devastating as it allows content to spread, thereby making it much more difficult to control and remove. It also provides perpetrators with opportunities for further exploitation. Seeking prompt support and legal advice can help to prevent threats from being acted upon and ensure that any content already posted is removed before further harm is inflicted. It should also hopefully lead to an early return to peace of mind, which is ultimately what the perpetrator least wishes.

If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact the Reputation Management team or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, February 2021

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