Violence Against Women and Girls
Violence against women and girls is an entirely foreseeable risk of harm that is highly prevalent and needs to be given particular attention in a specific code of practice added to the list at Cl 36. The Government has acknowledged, during the passage of the Bill in the Commons, that women face a disproportionate amount of abuse online: indeed, globally, women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men. Yet the Government still refuses to provide specific protections for them within the Bill. We have worked with a number of charities (Glitch, Refuge, End Violence Against Women, NSPCC, 5 Rights, Suzy Lamplugh Trust) on a code of practice which could easily be adopted in the Bill.
Baroness Morgan indicated in the Second Reading debate that she supported amending the Bill to include a code of practice, an approach which has cross-party support with Labour (Austin, Healy), Lib Dem (McNally, Clement-Jones and Featherstone), cross-benchers (Gohir, Kennedy, Grey-Thompson) and Baroness Foster all speaking in favour of it.
Many campaigners have made the case that protections for women and girls are not included in the draft Bill at all, a concern supported by the Petitions Committee in its report on Online Abuse. While Schedule 7 does include a list of sexual offences and aggravated offences – and more offences will be added in the Lords – the wider context of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) and the fact that women and girls are at greater risk of encountering harmful content and suffering harm from it are not addressed. The most straightforward way to improve this would be for the Bill to require OFCOM to draw up a code of practice, along the lines of that which Carnegie UK have developed with a coalition of other campaign groups and charities.
Measures to address VAWG in the current version of the Bill
The list at Schedule 7 includes the following offences which are frequently experienced by women and girls, including
- Disclosure (or threats to disclose) intimate images and videos
The Government has also indicated that the following amendments will be tabled be made to add further offences to this Schedule 7 list:
- Listing controlling or coercive behaviour as a criminal offence
- Creating a new intimate image abuse offence
It will also amend the Bill to name the Victims Commissioner and Domestic Abuse Commissioner as statutory consultees for OFCOM’s codes of practice. And – via another legislative vehicle – a new “downblousing” offence will be created.
Since Commons Report stage in July, the Government has removed the adult safety duties which – according to their indicative list in a Written Ministerial Statement on 7th July 2022 – would have included both “online abuse and harassment” and “circulation of real or manufactured intimate images with the subject’s consent” in the Priority Content that category 1 providers would have had to address in their terms and conditions. This would have been an important step but not in itself enough: non-designated content that is harmful would not have required action on the part of service providers, even though by definition it is still harmful.
As part of the “Triple Shield”, designed to replace the protections from the adult safety duty, the Government is beefing up the user empowerment duties in the Bill (clause 12) and has added a list similar to that proposed in the July WMS whereby services should provide users with tools that would restrict their exposure to types of content. This list includes, with relevance to VAWG, content that:
- 12(12) … Is abusive and the abuse targets any of the following characteristics— (a) race, (b) religion, (c) sex, (d) sexual orientation, (e) disability, or (f) gender reassignment
- 12 (13) … incites hatred against people— (a) of a particular race, religion, sex or sexual orientation, (b) who have a disability, or (c) who have the characteristic of gender reassignment
As set out elsewhere, we argue that these user empowerment tools should be turned on by default to provide a minimum baseline of protection for women and girls who go online.
Proposed VAWG amendments
The Government’s proposals do not go far enough to protect women and girls; their recent changes to the Bill have further weakened what was already a limited approach to protecting those who – by their own admission – receive “disproportionate abuse”. By relying entirely on criminal offences – existing and forthcoming – to protect women and girls, the Bill will do little to address the wider environment in which harms to women and girls that fall below the criminal threshold are prevalent and significant, both to individuals on the receiving end of targeted abuse and to the overall safety of women and girls as a whole. The user empowerment tools do not incentivise services to address the levels of content that might be harmful to women and girls on their platform or the way in which the design of their service is facilitating or encouraging its spread, putting the onus on individual users to protect themselves.
Moreover, not only does it put all the responsibility on individuals to protect themselves from viewing content that is abusive or incites hatred against them, it does not prevent millions of others from similar backgrounds from being exposed to it. There is also consideration to be given to the omission of any requirement for platforms to take action on incel material, which falls below the threshold of being criminal but – as with the case of the gunman in Plymouth in 2021, on which Luke Pollard MP spoke powerfully at Commons Report in January – can lead to tragic real-world violence.
We therefore propose that the requirement to produce a code of practice, such as the draft Code of Practice on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), modelled on Carnegie UK’s previous work on hate speech be introduced by a simple amendment to clause 36. Without this, OFCOM will only get to the issue of VAWG once it has produced the codes named in the Bill. Given the prevalence of VAWG and the proportion of the population affected by it and the extent of that impact, it is important that dealing with this area is not further delayed.