The Online Safety Act is now law. This landmark legislation is an important first step to tackling the wild west that is the online world. It will mean that at long last, online platforms will be regulated, with severe consequences for those who don’t take proper steps to tackle illegality.
While I am hopeful about the law’s potential, earlier this year I described the bill as sorely lacking in relation to violence against women and girls. It remains the case that abuse, misogyny and gendered harassment is rife online, and this has devastating consequences for women and girls – and indeed for wider society, through the unleashing of harmful misogynistic ideas, shaping public attitudes and social norms.
In fact, a recent survey by Girlguiding found that 81 per cent of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 have experienced some form of threatening or upsetting behaviour online, compared to 65 per cent in 2018. The largest study into online violence against women and girls also reported that one in eight women in England who’d experienced online violence said this had progressed to offline violence, with similar findings across Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Despite this, for the majority of its passage through parliament, the Online Safety Bill failed the test of addressing this problem. Over 200 pages of legislation, and women and girls were not even mentioned.
That’s why I worked with a coalition of organisations working to prevent violence against women and girls (VAWG) to call for better protections for women and girls online through a code of practice on VAWG. More than 100,000 members of the public rallied behind this, supporting the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Glitch’s campaign for the bill to go further for women.
The government has thankfully responded to these concerns. The law we see now requires Ofcom to create guidance for tech companies to reduce harm to women and girls, and to consult the domestic abuse commissioner, victims’ commissioner, survivors and experts in its development. While this guidance is not as robust a measure as the code of practice we recommended, it is a much-needed step in the right direction for women and girls.
Implementation and enforcement will now be key to its success. There is also a significant window before these measures come into force, but this should not delay action. The regulator, Ofcom, says we can expect the draft guidance on protecting women and girls by spring 2025.
Online platforms, many of which have for too long profited from such misogyny and abuse, must now heed this direction from government and indeed the calls of civil society, and start doing better for women and girls today. I expect online platforms to take initiative immediately to ensure that they do not create environments which facilitate and amplify gender-based abuse online.
Transforming online platforms in this way will make a world of difference to the lives of women and girls. Not only as a direct part of society’s efforts to reduce violence against women and girls, which remains so rampant online, but also as part of our wider efforts to create a more fair and equal society for women and girls – to the benefit of us all.
With a general election expected next year, my hope is that this new law creates the foundations for women to be able to participate more freely in public life – including those running for office, and those participating in public discourse about the election and how the country should be run. We can’t create the future we want without both.
Ending violence against women and girls requires all of us – including online platforms – to take responsibility for the task at hand and play our part. While far too many have failed in this mission until now, I and many others have faith that the Online Safety Act can move us closer to that goal.