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OPINION: UK Online Safety Bill is a missed opportunity to protect women, girls

Wednesday, 23 March 2022 11:00 GMT

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen gives evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill of UK Parliament that is examining plans to regulate social media companies, in London, Britain October 25, 2021. UK Parliament 2021/Annabel Moeller/Handout via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The solution is not for women to be forced offline. Instead, women should be protected and empowered to use technology safely.

Ruth Davison is CEO of Refuge, a charity that supports women and children experiencing domestic ABUSE in the UK, and runs the National Domestic Abuse Helpline.

Last week, the Online Safety Bill had its first reading in the UK Parliament. As the country’s largest provider of specialist domestic abuse services, and one with a specialist tech abuse team, Refuge knows only too well just how prevalent online abuse is, and how urgent the policy solutions are.

There was an expectation that this Bill would provide a much-needed and overdue opportunity to improve women and girls’ safety online. But in its current form, while it offers some progress, it is a missed opportunity; as it stands it will do little to protect the thousands of women that Refuge supports every day.  

Specialist organisations had called for violence against women and girls (VAWG) to be specifically referenced in the Bill, with a dedicated VAWG code of practice; this reflected the recommendations made by the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee during the drafting of the Bill.  It is frustrating that the government has not heard our calls for violence against women and girls to be at the heart of this Bill, leaving women and girls at risk and unprotected from abuse in online spaces.

The pandemic has shown us how much of our lives are lived online, from work to our social lives, and the need to regulate the digital world has never been more pressing.  

Our research has shown that more than one in three UK women (11 million women) have experienced online abuse on social media or another online platform, rising to a staggering 62% of young women. 

Social media companies are currently failing to protect women online, making these supposedly social platforms unsocial spaces for women and girls. Tech abuse - where a domestic abuse perpetrator uses technology as part of their abuse - is growing.  One in six women experiencing online abuse experiences this abuse from a partner or ex-partner, equivalent to almost 2 million women in the UK. By failing to specifically reflect the need for VAWG solutions in this Bill, the government is failing to protect women experiencing domestic abuse online.

Recent inspections into policing for women and girls recommended that violence against women and girls is given the same priority status as terrorism, and this call was backed by the Home Secretary. However, while the Online Safety Bill recognises terrorism, it fails to recognise violence against women and girls. This is a glaring omission and as it stands, this Bill will not offer the necessary protections for women and girls. 

The Bill also fails to create any new legislation protecting women and girls from online domestic abuse; instead, it focuses on particular criminal offences, including the non-consensual sharing of intimate images or so-called revenge porn, stalking and harassment. Whilst recognising the need to tackle these issues is welcome, these are already crimes covered in existing legislation, so this Bill has offered little in the way of new protections.

Imagine having just escaped your abusive partner, and establishing a safe, new home. Now imagine that your ex posts a picture of your new front door on his Facebook page. Social media companies probably wouldn’t see that as abusive behaviour, but we know that for survivors of domestic abuse, this is threatening and distressing and a form of abuse. Women and girls need the law to catch up with reality and offer them the protection they need. That is why the Violence Against Women and Girls Code of Practice is needed to clearly define this abuse, so regulators know how to spot it and act accordingly.

The solution is not for women to be forced offline. Instead, women should be protected and empowered to use technology safely. That’s why the Online Safety Bill is so important. The UK government has the perfect opportunity to turn online platforms from unsocial spaces, into social spaces, but sadly they currently failing to do so.