LIBE II

CROSS-BORDER

Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs II (LIBE II)

An online presence comes with a variety of dangers. With access to the internet and digitalisation becoming a necessity for education, economic and social well-being, how can the EU ensure that States, digital platforms and individuals all cooperate towards protection against image-based sexual abuse and cyber sexual harassment?

maria

Maria Tanou (CY)

Topic at a Glance

Captions
Hi everyone! I am Maria, and I will be the chairperson of LIBE II. Together we will try to propose concrete solutions to the issue of cyber sexual abuse in Europe. Cyber sexual abuse has become a new epidemic, with an increasingly alarming number of women, men and children falling victims to different kinds of online sexual abuse. In November 2020 in Ireland, 140000 intimate photos of women were leaked and shared on the internet without their consent. This instance brought to light the urgency for more robust, EU and world-wide regulation. Cyber sexual abuse deeply harms society as a whole, as it normalises non-consensual sexual activity, severely impacting victims and their rights. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous lack of data and effective measures tackling the issue and involving both victims, online platforms and lawmakers. It is important to keep in mind the role of private online platforms, as they can play a part in prevention and reporting. As such, the question we will come to face is: what role can the EU and private companies play in ensuring that all users can enjoy the benefits of the internet freely and safely?

Cyber sexual abuse has become a new epidemic with an increasingly alarming number of women, men and children falling victims for different kinds of digital sexual abuse. Bearing in mind the severe impact such violence can have on individuals, communities and nations, it is urgent that the EU, Member States and digital platforms take steps towards ensuring that EU cyberspace remains safe for all.

Context

With access to the Internet more necessary than ever, the dangers that come with a digital presence have grown exponentially. Cyber sexual abuse and harassment have thus become an issue more pertinent than ever before, with one in ten women having now faced cyber harassment worldwide. For instance in Ireland, 140000 intimate photos of women were leaked and shared on the Internet in November 2020. The photos were shared without consent, and without the knowledge of the women of  such photos existing. Many of those women were underaged girls, exposed with no regard as to their age. To prevent anything similar in the future, a bill was passed, outlawing online harassment and revenge porn. This made Ireland the fifth European country to adopt legislation specifically targeting the non-consensual distribution of private images. The case highlighted the lack of regulation of cyberspaces in Europe as women, men and children across the EU and the world came forward with their own stories of digital sexual abuse and exploitation.

While the phenomenon of online sexual harassment and image-based sexual abuse has been present for decades since the creation of the World Wide Web, it is only recently that a spike in online abuse and cyber harassment has been observed. As access to the Internet has become necessary for education, economic and social welfare, especially with the switch to remote learning, working and socialising due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more instances of image-based sexual abuse are noted. Digital sexual violence can take many forms, such as revenge pornography, upskirting, recording sexual assaults and sextortion, pornographic photoshopping, and non-consensual delivery of explicit images. All these significantly threaten the digital presence of women, men and even children. With such threats now prevalent within the EU, and not enough regulation to prompt its prevention and punishment, the number of victims consistently increases, while digital protection mechanisms are urgently needed.

Relevant Policy Measures and Legal Framework

The Budapest Convention or so-called the Convention on Cybercrime by the Council of Europe was adopted in 2001. It is the first international treaty focused on internet-related crimes. Articles 2, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 11 of the Convention apply to tackling cyber violence against women, facilitating the criminalisation of data interference that can lead to harm for both adults and children. In 2017, the EU signed the Istanbul Convention, the first European multi-country treaty on combating violence against women and domestic violence. The Convention sets out minimum standards for signatories regarding prevention, protection, prosecution, violence against women, and domestic violence. Several articles of the Convention can be also applied to the specific topic of digital violence. 

The EU Strategy on Victims’ Rights (2020-2025) was adopted on 24 June 2020. It is the first-ever strategy on victims’ rights aims to ensure that all victims of all crimes can enforce their rights, no matter where in the EU or in what circumstances. The strategy aims to empower victims of crime, enable Member States, EU instruments and civil society to work together for victim’s rights enforcement. It also aims to provide a safe environment for victims to report and communicate their circumstances, improve support and protection, facilitate access to compensation and strengthen the international dimension of victims’ rights. Furthermore, the Directive on E-commerce sets harmonised rules for electronic commerce and explicitly refers to the liability of service providers. As per the Directive, service providers are liable to remove or disable access to illegal content hosted on their platforms as soon as it comes to their knowledge. Additionally, the European Commission has announced that it will propose the Digital Services Act. The act aims to clarify what measures are expected from platforms in addressing illegal activities online, while protecting fundamental rights. 

The United Nations’ (UN) Agenda 2030 for sustainable development includes targets such as promoting women’s empowerment through the use of technology, as well as eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls. Moreover, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) adopted in 2017 the new General Recommendation 35, which redefined gendered violence to include violence facilitated through technology. On 4th July 2018, the UN Human Rights Council  passed several resolutions that heavily focused on cyber violence and gendered hate speech online, privacy violations and offences against women for their public persona.

Topic Analysis

Individual

The impact of such forms of abuse is severe on individuals. Victims often suffer extreme mental distress, with some even attempting suicide. As perpetrators often tend to be  previous intimate partners, harassment received online can promt offline violence. It largely follows the same patterns as offline violence and in most cases, the cyber-harassment is a result of a physical encounter with the victim. The livelihood of victims is often at risk, with employers finding their online presence dominated by explicit imagery. Moreover, the breach of rights to the victim’s privacy, dignity and family life is a violation of the right to their personal life. Such condemnable acts also inhibit sexual expression by vilifying victims and perpetuating a victim-blaming rhetoric whereby a victim deserves such punishment as they have allowed an offence of this sort to happen to them.

Moreover, the victim profiles in these cases are severely polarised with stereotypes and biases further adding to the institutional barriers behind this issue. Members of intersectional communities like LGBTIQ community, ethnic minority and indigenous peoples are targeted more often than any other social groups, facing discrimination and hate speech. The increased importance of the role of the online environment could pose an opportunity to connect globally. Instead, it threatens these women’s political voices as they feel intimidated by online threats. At the same time, younger women are even more vulnerable and more likely to be targeted by certain types of cyber violence, such as cyberstalking and harassment. Victims are also often discouraged from reporting, since having an online presence equates to accepting the dangers that come with it. Simultaneously, most measures aiming to tackle cyber-sexual abuse approach the issue solely from a women’s perspective, with individuals of other genders still being excluded in policymaking. It is therefore important to note that victim profiles add to the complexity of the issue, and need to be considered when addressing policy changes and lawmaking.

National

Cyber sexual abuse does not only harm individuals, but communities as a whole. Firstly, image-based sexual abuse is a form of cultural harm. When unregulated and not widely condemned, it normalises non-consensual sexual activity, sustaining a culture in which sexual violence is less likely to be recognised, investigated or prosecuted. Ireland’s November 2020 leak raised awareness on the cultural harm of passivity towards image-based sexual abuse, highlighting and urging for legal and social preventative measures with multiple campaigns, news pieces and civil action devoted to the issue. However, with different States falling behind in enacting robust regulation, communities are often prompted to stay silent and passive. This perpetuates a lack of awareness, empathy and victim-blaming. Moreover, regulations cannot be effective without resources and without addressing the urgent need for training for authorities, as prosecution is often impossible not only due to the regressive legal definitions of sexual abuse, but also due to the lack of digital experts and resources to investigate. 

European

The nature of the issue makes it one difficult to regulate transnationally. With cross-border cyberspace regulation scarce and difficult to implement across all Member States. For instance Ireland, Germany, Malta and Spain have strictly criminalised the issue. As such, different servers are free to regulate their content as they want. Crimes can easily transpire in a country while the offenders are based in another. This enables the offender to hide their personal information, while it becomes harder for national authorities to take action. Additionally, websites can very easily continue to exist illegally in certain states, while users can easily acquire a VPN key that allows them to access them despite the legislation of the State they are in. The gaps in research en lack of consistent data regarding cyber sexual abuse in the EU does little to help Member States. This adds to the difficulty of legislating as there is no definition for cyber-sexual abuse and, thus setting the issue in a legal and regulatory loop.

Further Research and Questions

The issue of cyber sexual harassment transcends the legislative scope, extending beyond criminalisation and regulation. The issue directly impacts the fundamental rights of individuals, the safety and trust in online platforms, as well as the social standards, procedures, cultures and laws of different communities, states and the EU as a whole. Therefore, we shall consider the following questions:

  • What action can be taken by the EU in order to ensure cooperation between Member States, private digital entities and individuals? 
  • What needs to change in each of these stakeholder’s approaches in order to facilitate a transition towards online safety for all? 
  • What can be done in order to expand victim profiles and the scope of who can be considered a victim of cyber-sexual harassment? 
  • How can individuals feel safer online while also freely enjoying all the benefits provided by the digital era, and how can digital platforms maintain their place in the market without compromising the safety and dignity of their users? 
  • How can Member States harmonize their approach in order to safeguard digital access across the EU?