Misogynistic abuse online is set to be banned under plans drawn up by peers.
A cross-party group of lords led by Baroness Morgan, the former culture secretary, is proposing a new legally-enforced code of practice that would require social media firms to prevent online abuse and violence against women and girls.
The amendment to the Online Safety Bill, due to be debated on Tuesday, is backed by Tory and crossbench peers, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and Church of England bishops, which means the Government is likely to be defeated if ministers try to block it.
It would mean companies that failed to remove abusive misogynistic content and protect women by banning repeat offenders would face fines worth up to 10 per cent of their global turnover.
Bosses could also be jailed for up to two years for persistent breaches under legal changes that would mean online violence and abuse against women and girls was treated in the same way as illegal child sexual abuse and terrorist content.
In an exclusive article for The Telegraph, Baroness Morgan says online spaces were still a “wild west” for women and girls as they daily faced harassment, abuse and stalking partly fuelled by “misogynistic influencers” on social media like Andrew Tate “who tell young boys that women are ‘property’ and should be abused.”
“The number of school teachers who have warned that girls are being bullied and harmed by young boys who have been radicalised with misogynistic views is horrifying,” said Baroness Morgan.
“Charities warn that this type of toxic and harmful content, piled onto young people by algorithms on TikTok and other platforms, could potentially lead to domestic abuse. The Online Safety Bill provides a real chance to make online spaces safer for women and girls.”
Last year, ministers rejected calls to class misogyny as a hate crime. Instead, the Government compromised by creating a new offence of public sexual harassment in line with recommendations by the Law Commission.
Ministers currently proposed only that social media firms should abide by their terms and conditions, which generally bar misogynistic abuse, and could face action by the regulator Ofcom if they fail to do so.
Further measures require big social media platforms to provide users with optional online tools that would allow women to screen out misogynistic abuse.
However, Baroness Morgan said the current approach failed to treat violence against women and girls on the internet in the same way as it was in the “offline world” where it has been made a strategic policing priority on a par with terrorism.
She said ministers were also relying too heavily on specific offences such as cyberflashing and sharing indecent images when misogynistic abuse covered other coercive and threatening behaviours such as pile-ons.
“It is disappointing that after years of debate and discussion about online safety, this bill still includes no specific mention of women and girls,” she said. “We know that women and girls are the most impacted by abuse, harassment and hate online, so why have they been excluded from this legislation?”
Research by Refuge found more than one in three British women (36 per cent) have experienced online abuse on social media or another online platform.
Signatories to the amendment include Baroness Kidron, the child online safety campaigner who masterminded the children’s code, Rachel Treweek, the bishop of Gloucester, and Labour frontbencher Lord Knight of Weymouth. It is also backed by Tory peers Baroness Newlove, the former victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, former minister Baroness Verma and Baroness Bertin, a former aide to David Cameron.
A government spokesman said the Bill had made it a priority for platforms to proactively tackle the most harmful illegal content which disproportionately targets women and girls.
This included revenge and extreme pornography, sex trafficking, harassment, coercive or controlling behaviour and cyberstalking. “We are committed to tackling online abuse and violence against women and girls,” he added.
We all have a right to be respected and valued online
By Baroness Morgan
As the Online Safety Bill progresses through the House of Lords, I am relishing the opportunity to recognise the significance of this Bill, which has the true potential to make us all safer online.
It is disappointing that after years of debate and discussion about online safety, this bill still includes no specific mention of women and girls. We know that women and girls are the most impacted by abuse, harassment and hate online, so why have they been excluded from this legislation?
I have tabled an amendment calling for a Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Code of Practice to be written into the Online Safety Bill. There are already codes for other issues such as terrorism and child abuse, but a code is desperately needed to specifically address the harms to women and girls.
In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, the Government acknowledged that violence against women and girls is a national threat. It is now a strategic policing requirement, on par with terrorism, due to the sheer scale of the problem. But abuse against women and girls isn’t solely reserved to the offline world.
Women and girls are under attack online, stats from domestic abuse charity Refuge show that more than one in three UK women (36 per cent) have experienced online abuse on social media or another online platform. Of these women, 1 in 6 experienced this abuse from a partner or ex-partner meaning around 2 million women have faced this form of domestic abuse.
Continue to receive threats
For women who have fled abusive and violent partners, they are seeing this abuse continue to play out online. They continue to receive threats and when they report this abuse to tech companies, they are often told there is nothing that can be done.
Charities tell me this has a devastating impact on survivors of domestic abuse, affecting their mental health and increasing risks to their physical safety. Further stats from Refuge show that 1 in 10 survivors of online domestic abuse felt suicidal because of the abuse.
There is strong support from all sides of the House of Lords for a code of practice that would allow media regulator Ofcom and the social network companies themselves to make the internet safer for women and girls and protect them from harm.
Social media platforms should be incorporating safety features in their platforms from the start. A code of practice will ensure that safety by design is part of this process and offer proper reporting tools for users and support when women and girls receive abuse, threats and harassment online.
Social media failing women and girls
Currently, social media companies are failing women and girls. Too often, women and girls receive inadequate support from tech companies. They are left feeling isolated and forced offline. We now spend so much of our lives online; but women and girls are often muted, forced to make their social media pages private or come off platforms altogether because it’s simply not safe.
Tech companies should have a duty of care to ensure women and girls are not forced to endure this abuse, but without a code specifically focussed on protecting women and girls and preventing them from harm, I am concerned that companies will not prioritise VAWG or take appropriate steps to address these issues on their platforms.
Whilst the Government has told companies they must prioritise several offences, such as stalking, that disproportionately affect women and girls, a much more holistic approach to VAWG, as provided for by a Code, is needed.
The reality is online spaces are still a wild west, with illegal activity such as stalking and harassment a daily occurrence for women and girls. Being online should be a safe experience for everyone. We can’t turn the other way and ignore women and girls who are being harmed in droves, whilst we watch the rise of ‘misogynistic influencers’, men like Andrew Tate who tell young boys that women are ‘property’ and should be abused.
The number of school teachers who have warned that girls are being bullied and harmed by young boys who have been radicalised with misogynistic views is horrifying. Charities warn that this type of toxic and harmful content, piled onto young people by algorithms on TikTok and other platforms, could potentially lead to domestic abuse.
The Online Safety Bill provides a real chance to make online spaces safer for women and girls. We hear time and again how the government pledges to tackle VAWG as a priority, but this must be reflected offline as well as online. We have a duty to ensure this landmark legislation – the Online Safety Bill, does its job and protects women and girls.
We all have a right to be respected and valued both on the streets and in digital spaces.
Baroness Morgan, the former culture secretary, is proposing a new legally-enforced code of practice to the Online Safety Bill