Today, the Online Safety Bill will return to Parliament, where members of the House of Commons will be given the chance to debate the legislation. This provides an essential opportunity to make the Bill more robust when it comes to tackling the abuse that women and girls face online, including in the context of domestic abuse.
With the Online Safety Bill, the government says it aims to balance the need to make the internet safer for people in the UK while also ensuring everyone can enjoy their right to freedom of expression online. The Bill will introduce new rules for companies which host user-generated content, for example, Facebook (now ‘Meta’), and for search engines, which will have duties focussed on minimising the presentation of harmful search results to users.
For the first time, platforms which fail to protect people will be answerable to the independent regulator, OfCom, and potentially face fines and could even be blocked.
However, there are significant concerns that the Bill currently fails to address any specific duties of care in relation to preventing Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) online.
Research from Refuge found that 1 in 3 UK women (36%) have experienced online abuse perpetrated on social media or other online platforms at some point in their lives. Of these women, 1 in 6 (16%) experienced this abuse from a partner or ex-partner. 1 Many women’s experience of abuse on social media platforms also overlaps with other forms of discrimination, with Black and minoritised women more likely to face online abuse. 2
There’s no doubt that technology provides perpetrators of domestic abuse with further tools to control, coerce and abuse and service providers have an integral part to play in stopping tech abuse occurring on their platforms.
At the moment, the most frequently given advice is for victims to block perpetrators or for victims and survivors to remove themselves from online spaces which is at its best insufficient and at its worst represents a systematic removal of victims from online spaces. It also puts the onus on women and girls to keep themselves safe rather than for perpetrators being called out and facing consequences.
It is also a worrying pattern that women and girls are effectively being excluded from online discourses, limiting their freedom of expression.
As the Bill stands, it lists a series of key illegal offences such as stalking, harassment, intimate image abuse and threats to share intimate images but the Bill does not recognise them as a continuum of violence contained within the Government’s own Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, or explicitly reference domestic abuse.
Campaigners are also concerned that the Bill does not reflect broader issues that can result from perpetrators using tech abuse against victims. Many abusers may use online platforms to continue to exert coercive control, (for example using spyware) but this is not reflected in the Bill as it stands. Failure to address these issues explicitly within the Bill will continue to allow these offences to be overlooked and domestic abuse to remain hidden.
Given this, it is fundamental that this Bill offers the necessary online protection for women and girls, and victims and survivors of domestic abuse more broadly. As such, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner supports the call from across the specialist domestic abuse sector for the inclusion of an accompanying VAWG code of practice. This would help to ensure that social media platforms are monitored by a robust, independent regulator reporting on technology-facilitated domestic abuse taking place online.
We ask that the Government, together with MPs and Peers engage with the specialist domestic abuse sector to create a Bill that explicitly addresses domestic abuse and VAWG. If not, the Bill will fall short of the government’s aim to make the internet a safer place for everyone in the UK.