Let's change that.
The Online Safety Bill: six years, 262 pages – zero mention of women and girls
By Helen Burrows, Policy & Public Affairs Director, BT Group
The Online Safety Bill is a proposed Government legislation designed to make the internet safer. But in its current form, it doesn't namecheck women and girls. Today, we've launched a campaign with EE's Hope United and Glitch – the charity working towards ending online abuse – to call for that to change.
First, a little background. The Government published an Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper consultation in 2017. This was followed by a Government response and then the Online Harms White Paper consultation in 2019; a draft Online Safety Bill was then published in 2021. This was subject to what is known as pre-legislative scrutiny by a Parliamentary committee, a formal report from that committee to the Government, and then the Government’s full bill in 2022 which (nearly) passed the House of Commons last summer.
A slight pause and rethink as the Conservatives swapped one leader for another, and then another. There have been eight different Secretaries of State since the green paper.
So there has been a lot of thinking, a lot of discussion, a lot of scrutiny. Industry has had many opportunities to contribute. The Bill has evolved and now sets out a longer and clearer list of illegal content that social media companies must remove – Government making the choices rather than asking private companies to decide.
65% of women who report abuse to internet companies don’t feel heard 
77% of women change their behaviour after receiving online abuse 
The Bill is now 262 pages long and does not mention women and girls.
This is despite the disproportionate levels of online abuse women receive, as we highlighted during the Women’s Euros last year.
In 2023, the online world that started out full of promise for freedom of speech and equality of opinion, it has become normal that women in the public eye experience torrents of abuse. Women of colour receive the most of all.
All women – and girls - who choose to participate online risk this kind of abuse too. From ‘dick pics’ to rape threats, being stalked by a controlling ex-partner or stranger, being abused for your appearance, gender or sexuality.
While some of these behaviours will be caught by the new categories of illegal content, many will not, or not well enough.
Comparatively, for other ‘priority’ areas such as terrorism and CSAM (child sexual abuse material) – both national policing priorities – the Bill requires codes of practice setting out what social media companies must do on content which falls below the (rightly, high) threshold of illegality.
The Government say that in implementing these codes ‘companies should consider factors such as the nature of their services, the underlying architecture of their systems, the risks to their users, and the availability of established or emerging technologies appropriate for addressing the issues identified.
Violence against women and girls is a national policing priority too but, at the moment, the Bill does not require a code for this topic.
Instead, the Bill is relying on a few new criminal offences to make the internet safer for women and girls. And therefore, it will do little to address the wider environment in which online gender-based violence and abuse is perpetrated and facilitated.
This is just one example of how, we believe, the Bill can and should do more to make the internet safer for women and girls.
We’re working with our partners Glitch to help #MakeItSafer by advocating to Parliamentarians, both MPs and Lords, to improve the Bill. We've written detailed briefings for Parliamentarians, brought in legal experts, held round tables, and held a reception at the House of Lords attended by Fara Williams and Rio Ferdinand to advocate for the changes we think would make the Bill stronger for women and girls
The Bill goes to the House of Lords for changes at Committee Stage next week, so now is the time to make our voices heard and call for the bill to do more to protect women and girls.
Join us, and help us score a win for women and girls in the final moments of writing this important new law.
We believe the Bill should:
- Introduce a code of practice for violence against women and girls (clause 36)
- Strengthen requirements around user empowerment, to incentivize services to address the levels of content that might be harmful to women and girl (and other vulnerable users) or the way in which the design of their service is facilitating or encouraging its spread. (clauses 12, 14, 65, 66)
- Amend the current cyberflashing offence to make it consent not intent based (clause 167)
To firmly put the onus for requesting and gaining consent on the sender of the image as set out in more detail here
Click here to find out more about the Online Safety Bill, and make your own social media post tagging the House of Lords, or your MP, to let them know you support our campaign.
Image by John Schnobrich for Unsplash