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Government urged to do more to protect women and girls from online abuse

5 min read

The government recently introduced changes to toughen up its Online Safety Bill, with plans for new offences and measures against anonymous troll. But some MPs and campaigners say Nadine Dorries — the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport — could still do more to protect women from cyber flashing and other forms of online abuse.

The murder of Sarah Everard last year fuelled a nationwide debate about combating violence against women and girls (VAWG). Campaigners say this should include making the internet safer by strengthening the government’s Online Safety Bill, its planned regulatory framework for tackling harmful content online.

Women face a range of abuse online, from sexist harassment to rape threats, revenge porn, revealing private and intimate details—so-called doxing — stalking, cyber flashing, and grooming for abuse and exploitation.

“We know these experiences cause wide-ranging and long-lasting harm and are a fundamental violation of women and girls’ rights. But they currently don’t receive the attention they deserve, as online abuse is regarded as less harmful than offline abuse,” Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), an umbrella group of campaigners, told The House.

I do not care whether flashing is cyber or not, it should be illegal

Campaigners point to a range of data to illustrate the scale of the problem. A report by EVAW and Glitch, a charity which aims to tackle online abuse, in September 2020 showed that 46 per cent of women and non-binary people said they had experienced online abuse since the start of the pandemic. More recently, a YouGov and EVAW survey last October found 74 per cent of people believed the government should do more to ensure social media companies address online harassment and violence against women and girls.

An internet petition launched by Simon and Glitch founder Seyi Akiwowo calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Dorries to ensure the new online safety law protects women and girls from online abuse has attracted more than 59,600 signatures since it was launched in November. Both groups want online VAWG to be classed as a specific harm on the front of the bill.

Following recommendations from MPs, the Law Commission and campaign groups, the government announced in February that it was adding a range of new offences to the Online Safety Bill, which was first published in May last year. These included new offences for sending a “genuinely threatening” communication, designed to better capture online threats to rape, kill or inflict physical violence or cause people serious financial harm, and for communications — including those the sender knows to be false — which aim to cause harm without a reasonable excuse.

Separately, the government has also set out plans to make big social media firms provide users with better protection from anonymous online trolls by giving them more control over the content they receive. Privacy campaigners said they doubted the proposal would be workable in practice, adding that most online abuse was done by identifiable people.

However, the government has not committed to introducing offences for some other forms of online abuse women face. Technology and Digital Economy minister Chris Philp has said the government is “carefully considering” offences for cyber flashing, hoax calls, and encouraging or assisting self-harm. 

That came despite Johnson telling the Liaison Committee in November, “I do not care whether flashing is cyber or not, it should be illegal.”

Social media platforms including Facebook, Google, Twitter, and TikTok have committed to changing their moderation policies to protect women from abuse online. However, without legislation, campaigners say these commitments will only act as guidelines.

Neither parliament’s Joint Committee for the Online Safety Bill or the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) Committee have recommended VAWG be included as a specific harm in the Online Safety Bill, although the joint committee has said it supports the Law Commission’s call for an offence for “stirring up hatred against women. Damian Collins, the chair of the committee, told The House he hoped cyberflashing would be criminalised.

The DCMS select committee stated in its report that implementing VAWG as a specific harm on the Bill may be an issue, as other means by which types of online VAWG might be brought onto the statute books had been criticised as potentially ineffective, meaning these issues may continue to persist even if the government tried to make such activity illegal. This could form part of the government’s argument as to why it has not been put on the face of the Bill yet. Instead, it seems that they are targeting the indirect ways in which VAWG could be perpetrated online, such as anonymous trolls and inciting hatred.

Julian Knight, the chair of the DCMS Committee, said the bill needed to do more to combat content that is technically legal but harmful to women, such as deepfake pornography and using technology to make images of women nude.

“It’s time for the government to deliver on commitments made by the Prime Minister and ensure that such harmful content affecting women and girls is brought into the scope of the bill or defined as content covered by the duties of care of service providers,” he told The House.

Sheila Amedodah is a Dods Political Intelligence consultant

The House Briefing is running an online event on Women’s Safety on 1 March 2022. You can learn more and register for the event here.

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