Cyberflashing, epilepsy-trolling and fake news to put online abusers behind bars from today

New offences have been introduced to criminalise cyberflashing, fake news intended to cause non-trivial harm and other online abuse

  • New offences introduced to criminalise cyberflashing, fake news intended to cause non-trivial harm and other online abuse.
  • Offences from the Online Safety Act kick in from today, meaning criminals can face up to five years behind bars for their demeaning and dangerous actions.
  • Love Island stars, children’s charities, eight-year-old campaigners, and more collaborated to bring “Zach’s Law” and other rules into effect.

Abusers, trolls, and predators online now face a fleet of tough new jailable offences from today (Wednesday 31 January), as offences for ‘cyberflashing’, sending death threats, and ‘epilepsy-trolling’ are written into the statute book after the Online Safety Act gained Royal Assent.

These new criminal offences will protect people from a wide range of abuse and harm online, including threatening messages, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images known as ‘revenge porn’, and sending fake news that aims to cause non-trivial physical or psychological harm.

Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said:

"From today, online abusers and trolls will be prosecuted and put behind bars for their cowardly and menacing acts – ensuring the public are protected and can have better peace of mind when online.

"Our pioneering Online Safety Act is already setting a global standard, and pivotal protections like these will keep sick individuals off our streets and unable to endanger Brits online."

Dubbed “Zach’s law”, a new offence will also mean online trolls that send or show flashing images electronically with the intention of causing harm to people with epilepsy will be held accountable for their actions and face prison.

The campaign for this offence began when Zach – who has epilepsy and was then aged eight - was raising money for the Epilepsy Society and was looking at Twitter responses to his campaigning efforts. It became clear that online trolls had flooded the Epilepsy Society’s profile with images and GIFs designed to trigger a seizure for people with epilepsy. While Zach was thankfully unharmed, several others with the condition reported seizures after following the fundraiser online.

Clare Pelham, Chief Executive, Epilepsy Society:

"In this country we have a fine tradition of standing up to bullies. And with this new offence, Zach’s Law, the government is offering the full protection of the criminal law to people with epilepsy who are deliberately assaulted by flashing images sent by cowardly bullies.

"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."

Following the campaigning of Love Island star Georgia Harrison, bitter ex-partners and other abusers who share, or threaten to share, intimate images on or offline without the consent of those depicted will face jail time under new offences from today. 

Those found guilty of the base offence of sharing an intimate image could be in prison for up to 6 months, or 2 years if it is proven the perpetrator also intended to cause distress, alarm or humiliation, or shared the image to obtain sexual gratification.

Cyberflashing on dating apps, AirDrop and other platforms will also result in perpetrators facing up to two years behind bars where it is done to gain sexual gratification, or to cause alarm, distress or humiliation. 

Sending death threats or threatening serious harm online will also carry a jail sentence of up to five years under a new ‘threatening communications’ offence that will completely outlaw appalling threats made online that would be illegal if said in person.

A new false communications offence will bring internet trolls to justice by outlawing the intentional sending of false information that could cause ‘non-trivial psychological’ or physical harm to users online. This new offence will bolster the government’s strong commitment to clamping down on dangerous disinformation and election interference online.

In the wake of sickening content, often targeted at children, that encourages users to self-harm, a new offence will mean the individuals that post content encouraging or assisting serious self-harm could face up to 5 years behind bars.

Richard Collard, Associate Head of Child Safety Online at the NSPCC, said:

"Children can be particularly vulnerable to content that encourages or assists self-harm and everything possible should be done to protect them from it while they are online.

"We hope this new offence will act as a deterrent to people deliberately spreading this extremely dangerous material. At the same time the focus must remain on tech companies and their duty under the Online Safety Act to design safety into their platforms and stop this content from being suggested and shared in the first place."

While much of the Online Safety Act’s protections are intended to hold tech companies and social media platforms to account for the content hosted on their sites, these new offences will apply directly to the individuals sending threatening or menacing messages and bring justice directly to them.

Some of the offences that commence from today will be further bolstered too, when the wide-ranging Criminal Justice Bill completes its passage through Parliament.

Department for Science, Innovation and Technology
The Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP