Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

Google and others – need to get it right!

It’s of great concern that internet providers such as Google are helping users uncover the identity of rape and sexual assault victims – who by law, have their anonymity protected for life.

Here in the North East, a case involving footballer, Adam Johnson saw his victim named on social media, (at times assisted by Google algorithm which anticipates what a person is looking for) – this is a clear a breach of the law and social media / search engine companies need to be accountable for their actions, they need to be doing far more than they are to take down names and report offenders to the police. Twitter has the power to block certain names from appearing on their site and to take material down when instructed to do so by the Home Office – this is the sort of firm action that needs to be taken by providers of search engines and social media companies, however, they shouldn’t wait for an instruction from the Home Office, they should be ensuring that the law is adhered to on their platforms.

We all have a role in ensuring that the anonymity law is respected by the media (in whatever format). During the Adam Johnson investigation, the former editor of the Sun newspaper was convicted of breaching the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act after a pixelated photograph of the victim was printed by the tabloid. No matter how pixelated the photograph, it is wrong for an editor to merely claim that he did not know he was committing an offence. The Judge correctly identified that it would have still been possible for the teenager to be identifiable by people familiar with her Facebook profile. Durham Police at the time said “ What Dinsmore did in the Sun was legally and morally wrong. As a victim of a sexual offence, the identity of this child should have been protected. Instead her picture, although pixelated, was plastered across a national tabloid. She was not fair game, she was a child who was groomed by a person in power for his own sexual gratification.”

Alongside the photo incident, Facebook had been forced to remove a page set up in support of an appeal for Johnson – before it was taken down, it had received over a thousand likes and the page contained critical comments about the victim. I fully appreciate that this is a difficult crime to tackle, but something needs to be done. Complainants in sex offence cases have automatic lifelong anonymity and breaching this law currently brings with it a fine of up to £5000. However, this deals with the problem after the event, we need action when it happens.

In 2012, a Juror was jailed for six months for discussing a trial, another example was where a man received a suspended jail term for tweeting images purporting to identify a man given life-long anonymity. We need the police to work much more closely with social media / search engine providers, as a society we want to embrace the good of the internet, but we must also be willing to address the harm that it brings. These cases are only the tip of the iceberg and nationally we need to take action. I have sent a copy of this article to the new Home Secretary to see how his department can support local police forces. We also need “buy in” from the likes of Twitter and Facebook – just because they are “hosted” outside this country doesn’t mean they are immune to UK law – if it can be read and shared in the United Kingdom they must adhere by our laws.

Northumbria Police are committed to doing all they can to support victims. Now we need funding from central government to address what is in effect a “cyber-crime”.

The Home Secretary also needs to present to Parliament proposals for stronger sentences against those who reveal victims’ names, the men who named the complainant in the Ched Evans case were ordered to pay £624 in compensation each, this weak judgement gives others confidence to break the law and we need to stop that.