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Online Harms White Paper Should Represent Survivors of Abuse

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Written by Aqsa Suleman.

Online Harms White Paper should consider putting in place measures which prevent perpetrators of domestic violence from weaponising online platforms and inflicting further violence and abuse on victims.

On 8th April 2019, the Government published its Online Harms White Paper which highlights the need to create safety measures across all online platforms. The Government wants to make companies that are well-established online (such as Facebook, Instagram and Google) responsible for their users’ safety, especially when it comes to children, young people and other vulnerable groups.

The White Paper proposes establishing a legally-binding duty of care towards those who use these platforms, and the Government is looking to set up an independent regulator to potentially oversee that this is honoured. The presence of a regulator will allow companies to be held accountable if and when harmful activity is featured on their platforms.

We believe the Government should introduce regulations which seek to protect survivors of domestic and sexual violence across all digital platforms. Trauma-informed support should also be provided to women who suffer from multiple disadvantages (such as drug and alcohol dependence, trauma or mental illness and homelessness) alongside surviving domestic abuse, as this specific group could be more susceptible to further forms of violence online.

An official public consultation has been launched in order to gather perspectives on whether digital platforms should be regulated. The consultation will remain open until 1st July 2019. Further information about the Online Harms White Paper can be found here.

We believe the Government should look closely at how perpetrators use online platforms to target and abuse their victims. Regulations tackling online harm should consider the perspectives and experiences of domestic abuse survivors and understand the barriers they face in terms of trying to disclose, such as:

  • Having children with their partner.
  • Being afraid to upset the rest of the family.
  • Being afraid to upset the community they come from.
  • Fear that being of a different gender, race, religion, sexuality may expose them to discrimination, racism, homophobia if they were to disclose their circumstances.
  • Fear that they will not have any money/accommodation if they decide to disclose/leave.
  • May have learning difficulties, disabilities or mental health conditions which prevent them from disclosing abuse.
  • May suffer from drug or alcohol addiction and fear that they might be stigmatised/denied help.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of barriers survivors face. It would be helpful if the Government were attentive towards the circumstances, needs and struggles of these survivors, and implemented measures that deliver a greater sense of security and safety for them online.

Technology is providing perpetrators with new tools to abuse their victims. This often includes using online platforms to inflict violence against their targeted victims.

Reported methods of coercion and control that perpetrators are known to use include:

  • Cyberstalking – consistently following the social media profiles or the online footprints of their victim to monitor what they are doing.
  • Sending threatening messages to victims across platforms, including death threats and threats of harm.
  • Posting hateful messages (trolling) online either directly or indirectly towards their victim.
  • Threats to post intimate photos or videos of a victim online to humiliate them or for sexual exploitation.
  • Controlling the online presence and image of victims, the amount of time victims can spend online and what platforms/websites they can have access to, as well as what is posted and who they can speak to across these platforms. They may even hack into these accounts in order to do this or spy on their victim.
  • Using messaging services across platforms to inflict emotional/psychological abuse.
  • Monitoring search history of victims, tracking each website they’ve visited to stop them from contacting or accessing websites that a victim may want to seek help from.

Women’s Aid research[1] into online domestic abuse discovered that:

  • For 85% of respondents involved in the research, the abuse they received online from a partner or ex-partner was part of a pattern of abuse they also experienced offline.
  • Nearly a third of respondents (29%) experienced the use of spyware of GPS locators on their phone or computers by a partner or ex-partner.
  • For half (50%) of respondents, the online abuse they experienced also involved direct threats to them and someone they knew.
  • Nearly a third of those respondents who had received threats stated that when threats had been made online by a partner or ex-partner, they were actually carried out offline.

Additionally, data compiled by the ONS in 2018 showed that revenge pornography was also used by perpetrators as a method of controlling their victims online. Out of the 464 prosecutions for this offence recorded in the year ending March 2018, 86% (400) were flagged as being domestic abuse-related (ONS, 2018).

While many websites seeking to help domestic abuse survivors offer a ‘cover your tracks’ mechanism, the support for survivors across the internet does not go far enough. Domestic abuse is still mostly interpreted as being acts of physical violence, and abuse across digital platforms is often not considered in the comprehensive manner that physical violence against women is. Further steps must be carried out to prevent a perpetrator from controlling the online presence of their victims or using online tools to inflict further harm.

Not having anybody to contact online or having limited/controlled access to digital platforms may isolate a victim, making them feel they have no means of escape from their perpetrator, no sense of privacy or independence. This can cause the victim/survivor to experience additional trauma and could exacerbate any existing mental ill health.

This was seen, for example, in 2016, when teenager Emily Drouet was driven into depression and suicide as a result of the abuse inflicted on her by her boyfriend. Emily’s perpetrator physically abused her and also used online platforms to extend his level of control and abuse. Emily was sent abusive texts prior to her death. The perpetrator in this case used online platforms to make her feel isolated, to emotionally and psychologically abuse her and to make her feel that she had no means of escape. This case highlights the importance of implementing safety measures for survivors across online platforms.

The public consultation for the Online Harms White Paper should gather perspectives from organisations within the VAWG sector and from survivors/victims of abuse about their experiences of domestic/sexual abuse online. The Government should also seek to address the importance of protecting the wellbeing and safety of vulnerable women and girls and other victims across online platforms, especially those that have experienced domestic abuse or sexual violence.

One very useful solution would be to set up an accountability measure against digital platforms such as Facebook, Google and Instagram. These platforms should have the duty to investigate the activity and accounts of perpetrators who are using social media in harmful ways, and seek to close such accounts down. Steps should be taken to stop perpetrators from accessing online platforms to commit further domestic or sexual abuse and harm, and to block any material flagged as domestic or sexual abuse related from being viewed by other users, especially those who are more vulnerable to such content. More platforms should offer a ‘cover your tracks’ mechanism for survivors of domestic abuse, as well as access to resources which can help guide and support them online.

[1] https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/what-is-domestic-abuse/onlinesafety/