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"This is for everyone," Tim Berners-Lee said of his invention, the World Wide Web. For years it was: the internet was where we looked up fun facts, found long lost friends and sent pictures to loved ones across the world. Social media then burst onto our screens and grew exponentially, replacing emails and MSN messages with selfies and tweets.
The growth of social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook has gone hand in hand with the growth of online misogyny and sexism, making the internet a no-go space for many people, women in particular.
Online abuse in the UK can broadly be broken down into two categories. The first is more targeted abuse directed towards someone known personally to the abuser, who is often a partner, ex-partner, colleague or classmate. The second branch of online abuse in the UK is that directed towards someone prominent in a public online space.
The former type of abuse takes many forms, including revenge pornography and stalking. It is targeted, persistent, and potentially extremely dangerous. Victims are often women and often already victims of domestic abuse. Legislation is beginning to tackle this abuse: in April 2015, revenge pornography – the sharing of private sexual photographs or films without consent – became a criminal offence. Yet this legislation is still insufficient: the Women's Equality Party (WE) have joined the work to end targeted online abuse and in May launched their ‘e-Quality’ campaign which seeks to protect women on the internet, and calls for cross-party co-operation in legislating to address harmful digital communications.
At the launch, party leader Sophie Walker said, “WE call on all political parties to set aside their differences and work with us to deliver digital legislation that works, so that the internet is safe and fair for all.”
Currently the law focuses on whether the perpetrator intended to cause distress. WE are campaigning for a change in the law so that the charges are based purely on whether or not the victim consented to the sharing of images.
WE also highlight the need for improved monitoring and data analysis of online abuse. Whilst insufficient according to WE, the figures do indicate that 75-90% of victims of revenge pornography are women, and some are as young as 11 years old. Evidence submitted to the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry on sexual violence and harassment in schools revealed that young girls are being bullied and blackmailed digitally and are frequently pressurised into sending sexual images online.
A year ago the UK criminalised ‘revenge porn’ or image-based sexual abuse, however in only the minority of cases have perpetrators been charged. Moreover, very little has been done to prevent website operators from redistributing and profiting from such images.
The second element of online abuse in the UK, that related to those with prominent online profiles, is often targeted at individuals with a public profile, such as the death and rape threats directed at activist Caroline Criado-Perez or MP Jess Phillips. This type of online abuse can also be aimed at less prominent figures, for example by shaming and ostracising members of particular online communities.
For millennia, women have been held back by the threat of sexual violence. Now, the anonymity provided by social media has served to enable perpetrators to behave in way they wouldn't face to face. Moreover, research has shown that individuals need to see a face in order to feel empathy; social media masks a victim’s face, removing the empathy which may have prevented some from firing off abuse. This type of abuse is often difficult to prosecute, as it is hard for victims to come forward and police to obtain the evidence needed to push cases forward when they do, but thankfully MPs and social media sites are collaborating to find solutions.
Facebook joined together with Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians to launch the 'Reclaim the Internet' campaign, an online forum giving a platform on which individuals, organisations, employers, union members, victims, police and tech companies can contribute to provide the foundation for effective legislation.
Reclaim the Internet aims to safeguard freedom of speech and ensure that female voices are not “drowned out by faceless avatars", as Jess Phillips said. "I want spunky women shouting up and facing honest to goodness debate and challenge. Not men with spunky names bullying women in to silence".
Regardless of whether the victims are public figures or private citizens, the internet won't truly be a safe place for everyone until online abuse is banished. By appealing to digital natives and nomads alike, and inviting them to spread the word online through means such as emailing their MP or tweeting, the 'Reclaim the Internet' and 'e-Quality' campaigns are well-positioned to tackle the issue. These campaigns are also bringing the issue offline with a debate in Parliament that was held on 13 June and an upcoming Reclaim the Internet Conference taking place on 18 July in London. Like the digital generation these campaigns are seeking to protect, they're adept at switching between the online and offline worlds with the goal of making them truly for everyone.
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