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Online Safety Bill fails to stop violence against women and girls, experts warn

A child using a laptop computer, as some pupils have begun the new school term learning remotely as the Omicron variant causes disruption across the country (PA)
A child using a laptop computer, as some pupils have begun the new school term learning remotely as the Omicron variant causes disruption across the country (PA)

The current provisions to address online violence against women and girls in the Online Safety Bill are inadequate and the Government must consider amending it to include a new industry-created code of practice, campaigners have said.

A group of experts comprising charities and women’s safety organisations have drafted a code of practice they say would help focus on the prevention of violence rather than on content takedown and help sites address the underlying causes of the issue.

Although the Government’s decision to include some predominately gendered crimes in the Bill’s priority illegal content list – such as harassment, stalking and the criminalisation of cyberflashing – has been praised, the experts said this does not fully address the issue of violence against women, which they say incorporates a broad range of harmful behaviours and practices beyond those included on the priority list.

The coalition of experts, which includes Refuge, the NSPCC, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Glitch said the current plans were not comprehensive enough, noting that the Bill does not currently mention women, misogyny, or violence against women and girls.

In response, the draft code includes 13 areas for tech companies to focus on and includes best practice guidance around safety by design, moderation and victim support with the prevention of such violence.

The expert coalition said amending a clause in the Online Safety Bill to allow for the introduction of the code and giving regulator Ofcom the power to enforce it would make the UK the first country in the world to hold tech companies to account on tackling violence against women and girls.

The Bill is currently making its way through Parliament.

The code is set to be launched on Wednesday at an online event chaired by Conservative MP Maria Miller and Baroness Morgan.

Ruth Davison, chief executive of Refuge, one of the charities backing the code, said: “Despite the sheer scale of online violence against women and girls, there is currently no legal obligation on big tech companies to do anything about it.

“Refuge supports women every day who have experienced horrifying online abuse, so it’s of huge concern to us.

“Adopting this code of practice is a simple and effective way for the Government to strengthen the Online Safety Bill and provide assurances that they are serious about making the internet a safer place for women and girls. We hope they will take this opportunity.”

Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said introducing the code would have a “hugely positive impact”.

“The Government wants to make the internet safer for all, but it won’t be able to do this unless the Online Safety Bill meets the rights and needs of women and girls, including those who experience discrimination and inequality on the basis of their race, sexuality or disability,” she said.

“We’ve shown that a VAWG code of practice can be comprehensive, robust and workable, and assert a clear expectation on tech companies as to how they should prevent and respond to violence against women and girls.

“Including a code of practice in this area is a really important way the Government can have a hugely positive impact on women and girls’ experiences in online spaces.”

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