Does the Online Safety Bill work for women, especially women of colour?

Seyi Akiwowo spoke at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation about the draft Online Safety Bill and the online abuse of women. Here, she talks about how the Bill doesn’t recognise the online violence towards women, especially women of colour, and marginalised people.

Speaking to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation about the draft Online Safety Bill and the online abuse of women, especially women of colour, was daunting — but a huge and vital opportunity to ensure that the Bill is fit for purpose.

At present, there is a major and stark omission from the Bill: women are not explicitly mentioned in it. (For context: children are mentioned 213 and terrorism 55 times.) This is a seriously problematic approach if the UK Parliament is to pass ground-breaking new legislation with the Online Safety Bill.

Whether deliberately or not, the Government’s current draft simply hasn’t recognised women and violence against women and girls. There is no mention of the disproportionate impact online abuse 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. Tech companies should have to think about these specific things while writing risk assessments. There also needs to be much more emphasis put on increasing safety by changing how platforms actually work and operate. Even more problematic is that abuse on social media largely does not pass the legal threshold for violence. We also repeatedly hear numerous cases of platforms not deeming obvious examples of harmful content as violating their community guidelines.

Girl Guiding’s 2021 Girls’ Attitudes Survey shows that online in the last year, 71% of girls and young women aged 7 years old to 21 years old have experienced online harm. Girl Guiding’s recent research, It Happens all the Time, found that for 17% of girls and young women aged 15 years old to 18 years old, the fear of sexual harassment limits or stops them from using social media or going online. On top of this, our Ripple Effect report showed that online abuse had worsened during the Covid pandemic.

And it’s not just girls and women who use platforms socially that are targeted. Our work with BT Sport on their anti-online abuse campaign, Draw the Line, highlighted that when BT Sport tweeted anything about women’s sport, the posts were met with misogynistic backlash — including comments like ‘get back in the kitchen.’ Discriminatory, objectifying and sexualised language and comments that women can’t play sport were constant. The Welsh Government and the Welsh Women’s Football Team recently launched an anti-sexist online abuse campaign because the problem is so widespread.

The UK Government must accept and acknowledge the high levels of online violence against women and girls in the Online Safety Bill, not in a subcategory of harms to be decided later in the legislative process. This is an opportunity to future-proof the Bill.

The Online Safety Bill should be aligned with the Home Office’s Tackling Violence Against Women strategy and the Domestic Abuse strategy. Online abuse does not occur in a vacuum and this work to increase online safety would be strengthened by appropriate alignment with existing legislation and policy.

It should also take into account the impact of harms that may be physical and/or psychological for the intended victim, as well as other users affected by viewing the content.

Abuse of women online is endemic and we do not believe the Online Safety Bill can deliver meaningful change without explicitly naming this abuse as a form of violence against women.

One thing is clear: this draft of the Online Safety Bill will not deliver the same outcomes for women as it will men. We have a problem that affects women in such huge volumes in very specific ways that is different from men’s experiences. A law that aims to treat all people the same doesn’t have room to recognise the effects online abuse has specifically on women. Online harms against women should be seen for the violence that they are.

I sincerely hope that my evidence given to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee will be heard widely and acted upon.

Glitch is an award-winning UK charity that is working to end online abuse — particularly against women and marginalised people.