There were high hopes that the Online Safety Bill would make the UK the ‘safest place in the world to be online’ but three years down the line the future of the legislation hangs in the balance leaving victims and survivors fearing for their mental and physical health as well as their digital safety.
The need for legislation could not be more urgent with many domestic abuse victims reporting that the online world creates further opportunities for perpetrators to threaten and control even after a relationship has ended.
We know that online abuse has serious psychological, emotional, physical and financial impacts on victims and survivors with devastating consequences which is why I am calling on the Government to ensure this legislation gets back into Parliament as quickly as possible before there is a risk of it lapsing.
The Online Safety Bill presents a unique and essential opportunity to address domestic abuse offences and Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) that occur within the digital space. As there is often a continuum between abuse happening offline and online, this would ensure online safety was central in the response to domestic abuse as well as VAWG.
There are issues with the Bill as it stands which I am calling for the Government to address as a matter of urgency.
The Bill must protect all victims, but statistics show that women are 27 per cent more likely to be harassed online than men which means there needs to be a particular focus on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). The legislation currently fails to address any specific duties of care in relation to preventing domestic abuse and Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) online, endangering the government’s objective of increasing user safety being met.
I strongly reiterate the need for the inclusion of the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Code of Practice created by Carnegie UK, The End Violence Against Women Coalition, Glitch, NSPCC, Refuge, 5Rights and academics Lorna Woods and Clare McGlynn, in the Bill.
This code of practice would ensure that tech companies were able to respond to the breadth of violence against women and girls and prevent harm to women and girls. I would like to see key players and domestic abuse sector stakeholders being consulted on any new, or changes, to codes of practice.
It is key to the success of tackling online abuse that we see the inclusion of coercive and controlling behaviour on the list of priority offences. This would force companies to take responsibility to tackle online domestic abuse perpetrated on their platforms or facilitated by their technology. Controlling and coercive behaviour is criminal activity which must be clamped down on- we must ensure that this serious criminal offence does not get overlooked because it moves off the street, or out of the home and into the online space.
I regularly hear from victims and survivors who talk about the failure of law enforcement to recognise the impact and seriousness of online abuse and it is time that this issue is addressed. It is essential that police forces have the capacity and specialised training to tackle online domestic abuse and VAWG.
Police officers should be provided with training, guidance, tools, resources focused on online domestic abuse & VAWG including awareness of the connection and patterns between online and offline abuse in order to support better law enforcement responses.
In responding to victims, responsibility for the abuse must be placed firmly with the perpetrator and there must not be an expectation that the victim changes their behaviour. Victims should not be forced to remove themselves from online spaces in order for the abuse to stop. The perpetrators must be stopped.
Online services and social media should be open and safe for everyone to use free of fear and this includes all domestic abuse victims and survivors. I urge the Government to make this aim a reality by bringing an amended version of the Online Safety Bill back to Parliament as a matter of urgency. Victims need protection online and offline.