Thoughts This International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8th March every year and is dedicated to celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women which are myriad. However, we should not forget the further work required to combat persisting gender inequality despite the advancements made to date towards parity between the genders. An area in need of improvement is the safety of women in online spaces where women continue to experience increased risks of harassment and abuse as the following statistics highlight:
- Women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men.
- Black and minoritised women and non-binary people reported the biggest increase in online abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic, with 38% saying the pandemic had led to increased online abuse.
- A fifth (19%) of girls aged 11 to 16 have been sent unwanted sexual images — increasing to a third (33%) of young women aged 17 to 21.
The Online Safety Bill (the ‘Bill’) first announced in May 2021 is hoped to regulate online spaces to prevent the exposure of illegal and/or harmful material to individuals by placing a greater onus on digital platform operators to moderate user-generated content in both public and private online interactions between users.
The Bill has however received significant criticism for failing to go far enough to protect against violence against women and girls in online spaces. In response to commentary from charities and women’s rights groups, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (the DCMS) confirmed through a recent announcement that the Bill will be strengthened to include a new list of criminal content that technology firms will be obliged to remove from their platforms including revenge porn, hate crime, fraud, the sale of illegal drugs or weapons, the promotion or facilitation of suicide, people smuggling and sexual exploitation. Previously technology firms would have been forced to take such content down after it had been reported to them by users but they now must be proactive and prevent people being exposed in the first place.
In the same announcement, it was confirmed that the Bill will also create three new criminal offences:
- sending or posting a message that conveys a genuinely threatening message of serious harm, carrying a maximum sentence of up to 5 years;
- sending a communication with the intent of causing psychological harm or serious emotional distress, carrying a maximum sentence of up to 2 years; and
- deliberately sending a false message with the intention of causing harm, carrying a maximum sentence of 51 weeks.
The DCMS has stated that naming these offences on the face of the Bill removes the need for them to be set out in secondary legislation later and Ofcom, the regulator tasked with enforcing the Bill, will be able to take faster enforcement action against tech firms which fail to remove the named illegal content. Ofcom will also be able to issue fines of (up to 10 per cent of annual worldwide turnover) to non-compliant sites or block them from being accessible in the UK and Nadine Dorries MP, The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport , has confirmed that senior executives of online platforms could face imprisonment for failing to comply.
It is hoped that this enhanced enforcement power and legislation would make the UK the safest place in the world to be online whilst enshrining free speech.
Despite the announcement, the Bill continues to be criticised for not going far enough to protect against violence against women and girls specifically, since the disproportionately high volume of online abuse suffered by women and girls is clear.
Founder and CEO of Glitch, the UK-based charity committed to ending online abuse against women, Seyi Akiwowo has said that:
“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…
"Yet there are concerns that systemic issues on safety in social media and the gaming industry have not been adequately addressed… 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.”
Criticism centres on the Bill failing to recognise the specific forms of abuse and harassment women and girls face. MPs on the DCMS Committee have through their recent report called for the Bill to tackle content that is technically legal, such as tech-enabled “nudifying” of women, ‘cyber-flashing’ and “deepfake” pornography, either through primary legislation or as types of harmful content covered by the duties of care of service providers. Professor Clare McGlynn, Professor of Law at Durham University specialising in the legal regulation of pornography, image-based sexual abuse and violence against women, has asserted that the Law Commission’s recommendations regarding a new offence regarding image-based abuse should not focus on the motivation of the perpetrator, but recognise instead the threat and invasion of privacy for the victim.
It is critical that the exciting advancements in social media technologies, online gaming spheres and online platforms should not expose women to unacceptable risks of online abuse and lack of safety. It is necessary now for technology, gaming and interactive media companies to understand the implications of the Bill to ensure their present and future platforms offer safe and secure spaces for women and other at-risk individuals when the Bill comes into effect. This is not only because the metaverse cannot become an environment in which discrimination is allowed to thrive, but also because failure to create safe environments will adversely impact the bottom line of these companies who will see resistance to the adoption of new platforms and online spaces if they fail to take steps to prevent online abuse and lack of safety.
If you have any queries regarding this article or would like to know more about the Online Safety Bill please contact Laura Harper, Partner or Claire Jowett, Trainee Solicitor.