Opinion

The Online Safety Bill still fails to reference women and girls

On safer internet day we acknowledge the misogynistic and racial nature of abuse online, writes Seyi Akiwowo, founder and CEO of Glitch.

Image: Unsplash / Christina @ wocintechchat.com

During the Covid-19 pandemic we have been increasingly reliant on the internet for work, school and fun. But, while this has been a life-saver for many, it has shown us how desperately legislation is needed across online spaces. 

In 2017, the UK government announced that the Online Safety Bill, aiming to make the online space more secure for users of all ages, would make Britain the “the safest place in the world to be online”.

Five years later, we are still waiting. Meanwhile, online violence against women has got worse and, when passed, the law will not come into force immediately. 

Glitch and the End Violence Against Women Coalition joint report, the Ripple Effect, surveyed 484 women and non-binary people during the first lockdown about their online experiences. We unearthed how the pandemic is running in parallel with rising levels of online abuse.

While 92 per cent of people said they were using the internet more during the pandemic, 46 per cent reported experiencing online abuse since the beginning of Covid-19. This figure increased to 50 per cent for Black and minoritised women and non-binary people. Of the people who had experienced online abuse in the 12 months preceding the survey, 29 per cent reported it being worse during Covid.

Black and minoritised women and non-binary people were more likely to report suffering increased online abuse during Covid, with 38 per cent saying that the pandemic had led to increased online abuse. 

Gender was the most often cited reason for online abuse with 48 per cent of people suffering from gender-based abuse and 21 per cent suffering from abuse related to their gender identity and sexual orientation. For this reason, End Violence Against Women and Glitch have launched a petition calling for women and girls to be meaningfully included in the Online Safety Bill.

A recent announcement from the government on strengthening the Online Safety Bill aims to ensure that certain online offences are both dealt with proactively by social media companies and that perpetrators of these actions can be held accountable by law.

The government has included a new list of criminal offences, for example, to better protect survivors of domestic abuse and explicitly including so-called ‘revenge porn.’ But these announcements do not include women and girls in the way our petition lays out.

Women and girls are far more likely than men to experience online abuse, but the government is leaving women and girls out of the new law designed to make us all safer online.

What we are calling for is much broader than a list of new offences, which can never be an exhaustive list of online harms against women and girls, as online behaviour and emerging technologies continue to change very quickly.

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Most of the abuse took place on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, despite tech companies’ commitments to making their platforms safe. Yet 83 per cent of the people who reported online abuse during Covid felt their complaint(s) had not been properly addressed by social media platforms. This proportion increased to 94 per cent for Black and minoritised women and non-binary people.

Tech companies, including social media giants, have had relatively free rein when it comes to deciding how to deal with online abuse on their platforms. New regulations should change that. And the UK is not the only country looking at implementing them. The EU, Australia, Canada and the United States are all making big legal changes when it comes to how tech companies can operate to keep users safe.

But, all legislation that imposes regulations on technology has to consider how it can be futureproofed. And how it could cope in regulating new apps, behaviours and devices that have not yet been conceived of. Which takes us on to gaming and the Metaverse.

Despite concerns about the safety of users on social media platforms that already have billions of users, tech giants are looking to the future to create the Metaverse. While not exclusively linked to Meta, formerly known as Facebook, the name change suggests the company’s intentions to lead the way in this new frontier.

Yet there are concerns that systemic issues on safety in social media and the gaming industry have not been adequately addressed. Now, misogynistic abuse is rife, alongside other abhorrent discrimination such as racism, transphobia, homophobia and ableism, and there are valid concerns that they will be mirrored in these new endeavours. 

It is no surprise then that despite limited information about what the Metaverse might look like, there are fears it will become a #MeTooVerse for women and girls unless serious measures are taken to prevent this.

Seyi Akiwowo is the founder and CEO of charity Glitch. @seyiakiwowo

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