The Information Commissioner is to investigate an anti-cruising website after an exclusive report by PinkNews.co.uk.
The website, set up to raise awareness of the “disgusting” practice of gay men meeting for sex, publishes uncensored images of car registration plates and faces of men allegedly involved.
Cruisingscene.co.uk focuses on the Haldon area of Devon, near Exeter. Local residents have previously complained about finding used condoms and tissues in the area.
It warns: “All over the country there is a disgusting underground world that most decent members of society have little or no knowledge of. This world is one where outwardly heterosexual men with wives and families at home go out ‘cruising’.
It adds: “Many of these men partake in unprotected sex with each other, indeed their preferences are advertised for all to see on the websites referred to above. They then obviously go home to their families and will resume ‘normal sexual relations’ within that home, passing on goodness knows what disease to these completely innocent people.”
Several PinkNews.co.uk readers have voiced their concerns about the website. One reader, who wished to remain anonymous, said the site was “vile” and “homophobic”.
He told PinkNews.co.uk: “What is really worrying is what … this sort of vigilantism can lead to. The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 was supposed to mean that we can now meet in public, but if we have to tolerate this sort of one-sided behaviour, then no real gains in our freedom has been achieved.
“Cruising areas, in rural areas especially, mean a place where gay and bisexual men can meet, as usually the surrounding towns and villages are poorly served by gay bars.”
Although the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was initially unsure whether the site was breaching data protection laws, it is now launching an investigation.
An ICO spokesman told PinkNews.co.uk: “We will be investigating this website to establish if it is processing personal data and if so, whether it is in compliance with the Data Protection Act.”
One company, whose van was featured on the website with its registration number and company details clearly visible, said its vehicle was not in the area for cruising, adding it would be contacting the ICO to have the image removed.
Stephen Loughrey of Carter-Ruck, a law firm which specialises in libel and privacy law, told PinkNews.co.uk: “In my view this is a gross invasion of the privacy of the people whose photographs have been published. The activity being reported upon here is consensual sex between adults. While it is distinguishable from the circumstances of the Mosley case (in that the activity being reported upon is happening in public), there is no public interest in publishing unpixalated photographs showing the car number plates and faces of those purportedly engaging in this activity.
“Although the individuals involved may not have a reasonable expectation of privacy while engaging in the activity, they have a legitimate and entirely reasonable expectation that photographs of them doing so will not be published to the world at large.
“While the activity may potentially constitute a minor public order offence (if for example local people have raised complaint), the degree of the intrusion into the private lives of those pictured is not proportionate to the public interest supposedly being served by the publication.”
The website’s domain name is listed as belonging to the cartoon character “Scooby Doo”. But 123-Reg, the company that processed the domain name registration, told PinkNews.co.uk that they believe the name belongs to a Mike Rowland. The rest of the information they have on file is fake so it is difficult to trace him.
Professor Peter Sommer, a well-known expert in privacy and data protection at the London School of Economics, told PinkNews.co.uk: “If the pictures were taken in a public place, there is probably no protection the Information Commissioner can give. But there is possible protection under privacy rights in human rights laws, such as those used by celebrities who have been photographed with their children or worse for wear coming out of a nightclub. Whether there is a public interest is arguable.”
Local residents have previously complained about the issue of men meeting for sex in the woodland area.
In March, one woman told the Express & Echo she had documented more than 150 vehicles in one of the most popular sites.
“It happens at all times of the day and night and the litter left behind is disgusting,” she said.
“There are used condoms, soiled wipes and inappropriate literature all over the place.
“It should be a pleasant area where children can run around freely, but it is being spoiled by these people. I think the police are too afraid of being labelled politically incorrect to deal with it.”
Superintendent Richard Baker, in charge of policing the area, said it was a “complex issue” but added it was a low priority compared with violent crime.
In May, Lincolnshire man Colin Haw, 47, was given a four-month suspended prison sentence for a Section 4A Public Order offence.
He had filmed a motorist urinating at a cruising spot while shouting homophobic abuse and threats at him. Haw later posted the footage on a website.
PinkNews.co.uk contacted Exeter police but have yet to receive a response.