Key Terms Explained
Online abuse can take different forms. Here are examples of the most common ones.
You can read more about the law in your jurisdiction here. If you want to consult us about your situation, visit our Legal Help page to see the services we provide and to contact us. We’ll be happy to advise you about your own case in detail.
Blackmail and extortion
Blackmail/extortion is when someone threatens to harm you or reveal embarrassing information about you, unless you give them money or do something else you don’t want to do. In non-consensual pornography cases, perpetrators often threaten to reveal an intimate image unless you send them more images or money, or stay in a relationship you want to leave.
Webcam scams run by criminal gangs are on the rise. One common method is to use a pre-recorded video to lure people into masturbating in front of a webcam, which the gang records and threatens to share online or directly with the victim’s family, friends, and/or employer. Blackmail or extortion can also come from a former romantic partner, or a stranger who obtains your images by hacking or persuading you to share them.
If you’re being blackmailed, it isn’t your fault. Even if you voluntarily sent the photos or videos in the first place, it isn’t your fault. It’s the fault of the perpetrator for threatening to share your private information. It’s more than just unfair – blackmail is a crime. If you want to learn about the blackmail law in your jurisdiction, click here.
Child pornography and “sexting”
Child pornography is a serious crime. It is illegal to take or make any “indecent” images of a child (someone under 18); to distribute or show these images; or to have them in your possession. Even if the images were taken with your consent when you were under 18, they are child pornography, and remain so forever. In addition to criminal prosecution, you may be able to sue the person responsible for taking them for monetary damages.
The Crown Prosecution Service defines “sexting” as the “sharing of illicit images, videos or other content between two or more persons.” In the child pornography context, this can include instances in which two children, close in age and in a relationship, share explicit images of themselves with each other, as well as instances when children are exploited or bullied into sharing explicit images. This can be done by other children or by adults, at school or online. When children take explicit photos of themselves, they are making child pornography, and when children receive this content, they are receiving child pornography. The legal response to sexting between children, particularly those in relationships, varies. Because of this, it is crucial to learn more about the relevant child pornography law in your jurisdiction. You can do so here.
Harassment, stalking and bullying
Cyberharassment, cyberstalking, and cyberbullying are often used interchangeably and generally mean a pattern of online behavior that disturbs or upsets another person. If the conduct is serious enough, it’s a crime; but less serious forms may still permit you to sue the perpetrator for money.
Harassment can include repeated phone calls or texts, or intimidating messages via social media, email, or other online methods. Harassment may be done by someone you know or a stranger. It may be done to provoke a reaction, pressure you into doing something you don’t want to do, embarrass or humiliate, or simply to annoy. This is also known as “coercive control.”
Online harassment is a growing problem, found on anonymous chat forums, online games, social media, and instant messaging services. It can be hard to stop because perpetrators are often able to remain anonymous.
Harassment is often an element of domestic violence. It’s also sometimes connected with stalking, where the perpetrator puts fear in someone by following them or showing up at their house or workplace uninvited — similar conduct online can be used as part of the stalking campaign. Both stalking and harassment demonstrate a desire by the perpetrator to control the victim.
Certain kinds of harassment may be a crime where you live. Stalking and phone harassment are generally considered crimes, and some forms of cyber harassment may also be crimes. They may also entitle you to sue the perpetrator for damages. You can find information on harassment, stalking and bullying laws in your jurisdiction here.
Defamation is a statement made to a third party that hurts your reputation. It’s usually divided into libel (written) and slander (spoken). In the non-consensual pornography context, defamation usually arises when someone posts an image with insulting comments about the person depicted (for example, “whore,” “will sell sex for drugs,” etc.).
If you can show who made the defamatory comments, it may be possible to sue them for money.
You can learn more about the defamation law in your jurisdiction here.
In some jurisdictions, false light laws protect you against someone trying to create a false impression about you without directly saying something untrue. For example, if someone wrote a blog about pedophiles or war criminals and illustrated it with a picture of you, you might have a legal case. Depending on your location, you may also have to prove the person making the accusation did so knowing it was false or recklessly disregarding whether it was false.
In the revenge pornography context, if someone posted your picture and wrote accompanying text that didn’t state, but just implied, that you were looking to get paid for sex or to buy drugs, you might have a false light claim. While a defamatory statement can be made to just one person, a false light case usually requires a wider distribution – the information must be “public,” for example published on an internet forum where many people could see it. If you want more information on the false light law in your jurisdiction, click here.
Breach of privacy
Generally, people have a right to keep their private affairs from being publicized. Disclosing embarrassing private information, or using someone’s name or picture for private advantage, can be illegal. Many kinds of non-consensual pornography are privacy breaches. For example, if an intimate video of someone is being used without their consent for another person’s commercial gain, that could be considered a breach of privacy.
Having your privacy invaded can be frightening. If you sent photos or videos to someone in confidence which were then shared with others, you may feel that your privacy has been violated. It may be possible to sue the perpetrator for money. Click here to learn more about the breach of privacy law in your jurisdiction.
You automatically get copyright protection when you create original artistic work, which includes photographs and “selfies.” Copyright prevents people from copying and reproducing your work, and your work may also be protected by copyright in other countries in accordance with international agreements.
In the non-consensual pornography context, you will generally be protected by copyright if you took the intimate image yourself. Because that makes you the author of the photograph, it is automatically copyrighted. This means that you can send a “takedown notice” to the website that is hosting it, informing them that they are violating copyright laws. Most websites pay attention to these requests because they have to pay well-defined damages if they don’t. For more information on takedowns, please visit our Takedown Resources page.