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Photography Tim Mossholder

The internet isn’t a safe place for women, rules new report

This may shock you, but it turns out that being a woman online is terrible

From ‘reply guys’ who assume an uncomfortable familiarity with their targets, to being AirDropped unsolicited dick pics on the tube, to harrowing death and rape threats, navigating existing as a woman on the internet is a minefield.

Online abuse and harassment affects millions: research published by Refuge found that more than one in three UK women have experienced online abuse on social media or another online platform, rising to a staggering 62% of young women. Even the inventor of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, stated in 2020 that “the web is not working for women and girls”.

This week, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee published a report outlining the shortcomings of the draft Online Safety Bill. The Bill is seeking to tackle harmful content online and fulfil the government’s manifesto promise to “make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”. But the committee – which is comprised of Labour, Tory, and SNP MPs – argued in a report published on Monday that the Bill was neither “clear nor robust enough to tackle certain types of illegal and harmful content”.

Notably, the committee’s report highlighted one of the most glaring omissions in the draft Bill: violence against women and girls (VAWG). The committee suggested that the government should address forms of digital abuse faced by women – such as deepfake pornography – which remain technically legal.

Given how intertwined our online and offline lives now are, it’s anachronistic to suggest that women simply log off when faced with digital abuse. Speaking in the House of Commons in November 2021, Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, also pointed out that online abuse can often foreshadow in-person abuse or violence. “It is not that it is more acceptable if it is confined simply to threats coming through your social media, to your email or on your computer screen, but we see cases where that migrates to in-person harassment, abuse and stalking,” she said. This was made painfully clear in August 2021 when Jake Davison shot and killed five people in Plymouth – just six days before, he had been reported to Reddit for sexually harassing a 16-year-old girl.

Rebecca Hitchen, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), told Dazed: “Our online experiences can no longer be differentiated from our offline lives; our online experiences are real life [...] What’s more, there are links between online abuse and offline violence, including the rise in traffic to misogynistic ‘incel’ online communities and a reported increase in rapes of women using dating apps. So on all counts, it is irresponsible and illogical for the government to leave women and girls out of their supposed ‘world leading’ new law that is meant to make us all safer online.”

Numerous women’s charities – including EVAW – have agreed with the report’s findings and are now urging the government to amend the Bill. In response to the release of the report, Jessica Eagelton, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer at Refuge, said: “Last year, Refuge launched its ‘Unsocial Spaces’ campaign, which calls for robust regulation of social media to better protect women and girls from online abuse and harassment. Refuge is pleased that the DCMS Committee has heard, and listened to, our concerns that the draft Online Safety Bill in its current form will fail to address many forms of online VAWG.”

Speaking in the House of Commons in October 2021, Seyi Akiwowo, founder and Executive Director of Glitch, a UK charity committed to ending online abuse, also raised the importance of intersectionality in these discussions. “It is worse for women of colour, worse for women with disabilities, worse for women from LGBTQI+ communities,” she said. Speaking to Dazed, Akiwowo stresses the importance of acknowledging this in the bill: “Whether deliberately or not, the Government’s current draft of the Bill simply hasn’t recognised women, and violence against women and girls. There is no mention of the disproportionate impact online abuse has on Black women and other marginalised and racialised communities. Nor are the specific harms that women face disproportionately online currently named.”

“Women’s experiences of violence, from harassment to the publishing of private details like where they live (doxxing), to online stalking and image-based abuse, needs to be reflected in the legislation,” she continues. “Online abuse against women is a form of violence against women. This must be recognised within the Online Safety Bill.”

Hitchen told Dazed that EVAW is urging the government to include “concrete recommendations” on tackling violence against women and girls. “Until VAWG is explicitly named as a harm on the face of the law and tech companies are held to account by an accompanying VAWG code of practice, the new online safety law will be a missed opportunity to make the online world safer for women and girls. We call on government to specifically name violence against women and girls on the face of the Bill before it is presented to parliament this spring.” EVAW and Glitch have also started a petition calling for the new law to explicitly address online violence against women. 

Evidently, the fight to end violence against women is far from over. We need to remodel and reevaluate systems which foster sexism and throw our support behind campaign groups like Refuge, Glitch, and EVAW which are pushing for change. “So far, the government’s responses to violence against women and girls have been superficial measures that do nothing to address the root cause of this abuse, which is men’s attitudes and behaviours,” Hitchen says. “We need to see investment in work to challenge cultural attitudes that normalise and minimise violence against women and girls, as well as investment in support services for survivors, which are chronically underfunded.”

She continues: “All of us, particularly men and boys, need to be part of the solution by challenging and holding each other accountable for unacceptable views and behaviour towards women and girls.”