Online safety bill will criminalise ‘downblousing’ and ‘deepfake’ porn

<span>Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA</span>
Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Nonconsensual “deepfake” pornography and “downblousing” will be made illegal when the online safety bill returns to parliament in December, the government has announced.

Explicit images taken without someone’s consent, through hidden cameras or surreptitious photography, will be criminalised, including so-called downblousing pictures. A previous law banning “upskirt” voyeurism left a loophole that failed to tackle images that weren’t taken with the intent of photographing the victim’s genitals or buttocks.

Those who share pornographic “deepfakes” – explicit images or videos that have been manipulated to look like someone without their consent – could be jailed under the proposed changes.

Prof Penney Lewis of the Law Commission, which recommended the new offences be created, said: “Taking or sharing intimate images of a person without their consent can inflict lasting damage. We are pleased that the government will take forward our recommendations to strengthen the law. A new set of offences will capture a wider range of abusive behaviours, ensuring that more perpetrators of these deeply harmful acts face prosecution.”

The justice secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “We must do more to protect women and girls from people who take or manipulate intimate photos in order to hound or humiliate them.

“Our changes will give police and prosecutors the powers they need to bring these cowards to justice and safeguard women and girls from such vile abuse.”

The online safety bill will return to parliament in December, the Commons leader, Penny Mordaunt, has confirmed.

The bill’s future has been in doubt since the resignation of Boris Johnson forced its withdrawal from business papers in the summer. Now, with its fourth prime minister and seventh culture secretary since it was first proposed in the online harms white paper, the bill is likely to be enacted this parliament.

Like Liz Truss before him, Rishi Sunak has been lukewarm in his backing of the bill, publicly supporting the general aims of the legislation but expressing doubt about specific elements of the proposed law that are seen by some in the Conservative party as legislating for “hurt feelings”, such as clauses forcing action on content labelled “legal but harmful”.

The government has not yet confirmed what changes will be made to the draft bill. Damian Collins, one of the key backers of the bill in its current form, resigned from his role as minister for tech and the digital economy in October, and was succeeded by Paul Scully.

Child safety groups welcomed its return. Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, which coordinates action against child abuse imagery online, called the return of the bill a “relief”.

She said: “We’ve seen that the threats facing people, particularly children, online are not going away, and we know strong and unequivocal action will be needed if the UK is to realise its aim of being the safest place in the world to be online.

“Now, we need to see lawmakers pull together with a common aim. Police, charities, and big tech businesses are all doing a phenomenal amount of work, and a clear direction from government will be a welcome boost.”

The NSPCC called for the bill to be passed “without any further delay”. Spokesperson Hannah Rüschen, senior child safety online policy officer, added: “It’s crucial that any changes to the legislation do not let tech firms off the hook or undermine government promises to strengthen its protections for children.”

But other groups have called for the bill to be scrapped. The Open Rights Group says it is not fit for purpose, and threatens the free speech of UK citizens. Jim Killock, the executive director, said it “threatens 40 million users of WhatsApp and other messengers with constant surveillance of their private messages.

“It will create a culture of everyday censorship that will disproportionately remove content from vulnerable, disadvantaged, and minority communities while claiming to protect them. It needs a complete rethink.”

News of the bill’s reintroduction broke the day 70 organisations and experts signed an open letter to Sunak expressing concern that the bill could become an attack on encryption.

“Encryption is critical to ensuring internet users are protected online, to building economic security through a pro-business UK economy that can weather the cost of living crisis, and to assuring national security,” the letter says, calling for clauses that could undermine the technology to be removed from the bill.