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How should legislation respond to sexual crimes facilitated by dating apps?

Dating apps are being used to facilitate sexual harassment and abuse and attempted child exploitation at high levels. Several criminal lawyers discussed the necessity for legislation to keep up and how legal professionals can respond. 

user iconJess Feyder 14 October 2022 Big Law
How should legislation respond to sexual crimes facilitated by dating apps?
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New research by the Australian Institute of Criminology exposed that 72 per cent of survey respondents experienced dating-app-facilitated sexual violence, in the report Sexual harassment, aggression and violence victimisation among mobile dating app and website users in Australia.

Respondents experienced dating-app-facilitated sexual violence, including sexual harassment, abusive or threatening language, image-based abuse, and stalking.

High rates of child exploitation attempts were revealed by another report, The Sexual exploitation of Australian children on dating apps and websites.

 
 

The report revealed that one in eight of surveyed Australians who have used dating apps in the past five years had been asked by other users on the platform to facilitate the sexual exploitation of children.

The noted increase in attempted online exploitation of children falls in line with the 77 per cent increase in online child sexual abuse material (CSAM) from 2019 to 2020, found by the Internet Watch Foundation.

The government responded to the reports, declaring that it expects dating platforms to be responsible for keeping users safe through accessible and responsive reporting mechanisms, support for victims of abuse, processes and policies that hold perpetrators accountable, and incorporating safety by design processes.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, several criminal lawyers noted that legislative solutions must play a role and respond efficiently to the ever-evolving online environment.

“The research suggests that detection and safety measures on these platforms are deficient, and it appears that the legal responses to these dilemmas are falling behind,” reflected Katrina Favre, principal lawyer at KF Lawyers Australia.

“It is clear there is a critical need for a government response,” stated Trudie Cameron, practice director in criminal law at Armstrong Legal.

Right now, the safety measures in place, such as reporting matters to the police, app, or eSafety Commissioner, are responsive rather than preventative, explained Ms Cameron, “more stringent measures are required to proactively prevent or reduce the occurrence of these issues”.

Current safety features on dating apps can be bypassed or exploited by perpetrators, Ms Favre explained; measures like blocking, reporting, or unmatching users can be ineffective, since they can create new fake accounts.

Legislation should require, at the very least, the option of identity verification prior to creating a profile on a dating app — this would enhance safety, Ms Cameron posited. 

“A person whose identity is known may be less likely to engage in this type of conduct as they are unable to hide behind the shield of an alias or fake profile,” she stated, and it would provide users with the option of engaging only with persons whose identities had been verified. 

Legislation could also consider the duty of care the app provider has to its users, it should spell out the standards required of app providers in relation to preventing, detecting, and reporting requests for CSAM and the dissemination of this material, Ms Favre suggested. 

“The difficulty with any form of legislation in dealing with a technological issue is that invariably, Parliament cannot keep up with the pace of change,” argued Jahan Kalantar, managing partner at the Executive Law Group. 

Ms Favre and Ms Cameron echoed these sentiments, noting that governments need to stay on top of new problems born from advances in technology.

Andrew Tiedt, accredited specialist in criminal law and director at J Sutton Associates, noted that existing criminal offences could be applied to offenders on dating app websites.

This includes offences around harassment, intimidation, stalking, recording, and distributing intimate images, he noted. 

Mr Tiedt raised the point that law enforcement and legal bodies should work closely with the government to assess the adequacy and appropriateness of current laws in their capacity to address new and emerging ways of offending. 

“It is also important to increase social awareness and education with respect to these problems,” added Ms Cameron. 

They further reflected on what lawyers should be doing regarding these developments. 

“As lawyers, our role is to understand the intersection between the law, technology and reality,” said Mr Kalantar.

“Criminal lawyers should be aware of the ways in which changing technology can open new areas of offending,” Mr Tiedt explained. “It is important to be across how old laws can be used to prosecute kinds of offending that were probably not imagined when the laws were written.”

“Criminal lawyers should be keeping abreast of changes in how law enforcement investigates and prosecutes such matters, to ensure they are in a position to provide accurate and comprehensive legal advice to a person suspected of engaging in such behaviour, or a victim,” Ms Cameron advised.

Lawyers should be involved in discussions around legislative reform and safety design principles to assist in the balancing act of protecting individual rights to privacy and protecting the safety of the community, Ms Favre reflected.