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?
Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs II (LIBE II)
Maria Tanou (CY)
Topic at a Glance
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.
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.
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?