As of today, the UK is criminalising actions such as cyberflashing and — in a world fist — epilepsy-trolling, with offenders potentially facing prison time.
The new offences will come into play as part of the Online Safety Act, a recently introduced bill designed to protect people from illegal or “harmful” online content.
Cyberflashing is the act of sending unwanted sexual photos. Studies have shown that about half of younger women (aged between 18 and 25) have received unsolicited nude images. The percentage is even higher for females under 18, reaching 76%, according to a 2020 research.
Now, cyberflashing offenders who aim to cause distress and humiliation or seek sexual gratification will face up to two years behind bars.
Meanwhile, the penalisation of epilepsy-trolling will target criminals who send or show flashing images intending to cause seizures to individuals with epilepsy.
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The offence is called “Zach’s law,” named after Zach Eagling, an 11-year old boy who suffers from epilepsy. In 2020, Zach, then eight, was raising money for the Epilepsy Society and uploaded a video of himself on the organisation’s Twitter account, standing up for people with disabilities.
In response, online trolls flooded the charity’s account with images and gifs designed to cause seizures, especially targeting individuals who had reached the one-year episode-free milestone. Many of the victims reported suffering from seizures after the exposure.
To raise awareness and address the issue, Zach and the Epilepsy Society started a campaign and received the support of MPs of all parties, leading to establishment of the offence.
“We are the first country in the world to do this and the Epilepsy Society has already been contacted by victims abroad who hope their governments will follow our example,” said Clare Pelham, Chief Executive at the charity.
The full set of new online offences
The new measures also include the non-consensual sharing of images known as “revenge porn,” threatening messages, as well as the sending of false information aiming at causing physical or psychological harm — especially targeting children.
Notably, these offences will apply directly to individuals, even though the Online Safety Act’s focus is to regulate the online content of social media platforms and tech companies.
In this respect, the act has sparked much controversy, raising concerns over privacy and surveillance. But it sets a high (and crucial) standard when it comes to prosecuting criminals spreading harmful content online.