UK law – sexual offences relating to the internet

In the UK there are several offences regarding sexual images of children and online sexual conversations with children.

Sexual images of children

According to UK law (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), there are four main offences relating to the access of sexual images of children, that you can be penalised for.

  • Possession

Having, in your possession, a sexual image of anyone under the age of 18, whether this is a physical or electronic copy.

  • Distribution

Sending a sexual image of a child to another person. It includes distribution through chat rooms, email, phone applications, text messaging, USB sticks and file sharing websites (peer-to-peer).

Sometimes file sharing websites will allow others to access your files without your direct knowledge. You need to check your settings to ensure this isn’t the case. The authorities will assume that you have consented to any form of distribution and will not accept any lack of understanding. If the authorities find evidence of intent to distribute, even if you haven’t done so, it is possible to be charged for distribution.

  • Making

Making an electronic copy of a sexual image of a child. This includes copies of images that are purposefully saved by a user on to a device and the automatic copy saved to a device when an image is clicked on. It also includes images automatically downloaded from file sharing websites.

  • Taking

Taking your own sexual images of a child.

Sexual communication with a child

Section 15a of the Sexual Offences Act (2003) makes it illegal for an adult to intentionally communicate with a child under 16 for a sexual purpose. This offence is sometimes referred to as ‘online grooming’. The offence is still committed whether or not the child communicates with the adult.

If the adult doesn’t reasonably believe the person is 16 or over (for example the person states they are under 16) then this is a criminal offence.

If someone you are communicating with online states that they are under 16, you are committing an offence, even if you do not believe they really are under 16.

Other online sexual offences relating to children

  • Exposing a child to sexual material

Intentionally showing a child sexual material, including adult pornography, sexual images of children and self-generated sexual images (e.g. showing your genitals to a child over webcam), through an electronic device or internet application.

  • Inciting a child to engage in sexual activity

Encouraging a child to perform a sexual act or to show sexual parts of their body, for example over live webcam or asking a child to send a sexual image of themselves. This is a criminal offence if the child is under 18.

  • Meeting or arranging to meet a child for sexual purposes

Most commonly, this is a secondary part to grooming a child online; after the trust has been built, arrangements to meet may be made. Alternatively, this could involve talking to other adults online and arranging to meet a particular child through them, for sexual purposes (in this case, money may be exchanged).

Other online sexual offences

  • Voyeurism

Direct observation of another adult or child without their knowledge, when a reasonable level of privacy is expected. This includes, but is not limited to, cameras being set up in communal areas such as toilets, and private areas such as bedrooms, in order to record someone engaging in a private act (e.g. taking their clothes off or engaging in sexual activity). It also includes viewing live footage of another individual engaging in voyeuristic activities.

  • Extreme pornography

Possessing pornographic images that depict acts which threaten a person’s life or result in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals. In addition, it includes bestiality (images depicting sexual activity between people and animals) and necrophilia (sexual intercourse with corpses).

  • Sexual chat about children

Engaging in sexual chat about children with other internet users. This could be via chatrooms, but also email and through commenting on images of children.

  • Obscene Publication Act

Publishing any content which will have a negative effect on someone else, whether that is the reader or the subject of the content. Whilst writing or reading a sexual story about a child is not illegal, it is against the law to distribute and publish such material for this reason.

You can find more information on the UK government website.

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