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Ending online abuse is integral to protecting freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is not freedom to abuse.

The current narrative around freedom of speech and freedom of expression online has created a false trade-off between free speech and online violence. It has become a smoke screen for perpetrators of online abuse. Online abuse isn’t childhood squabbling and hurt feelings — though we know that in itself can be very damaging. It is death threats, stalking and harassment, racist abuse, targeted sexist attacks or doxxing — where personal details like someone’s home address, bank details, family information is shared non-consensually. All of these cause immeasurable levels of harm.

Online gender-based violence is serious — it is also often deliberate and coordinated. That’s why we see women in positions of power like politicians, journalists, athletes and celebrities specifically targeted. Abuse is not a legitimate way to hold politicians and people in the public eye accountable, including athletes performing on the biggest stages.

It is upsetting but perhaps not shocking that as England women’s footballers progressed in the Euro 2022 championship, the abuse they received became more hostile the further into the competition they got. They were crowned champions of Europe on one of the largest stages in sport despite the hate on their social media feeds.

Online abuse is often used to deliberately attack and silence women. It disproportionately impacts Black women and other marginalised groups. Through intimidation and violence (both verbal and threats of or actual physical violence), online abuse pushes Black women to self-censor and to remove themselves from public and political life. It curtails women and girls’ rights to freedom of expression and their rights to live free from violence and intimidation. To live free from gender-based violence, both online and offline. Online abuse is a deliberate attack on gender equality and other gains in social justice, such as progress towards racial equality and the equal rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

Women and girls routinely take steps to stay safe online, which leads to self-censorship — they do things like keeping profiles private, being wary on online dating sites, being careful when posting pictures of their faces and homes, not using their real names on social media profiles, and not posting their locations. While digital self-defence is an important skillset, it’s clear that women and girls, particularly marginalised groups such as Black women or LGBTQ+ folk, are not accessing the benefits of self-expression and political and social engagement online equitably. The online space as it exists is not one in which they can freely express themselves without fear or risk of harm.

A great deal of the public discourse around the Online Safety Bill has suggested that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are being threatened by the invasive nature of regulation, particularly in the territory of what is ‘legal but harmful’. A lot of online abuse does not fall into the criminal threshold and is in this ‘legal but harmful’ category: online abuse is incredibly harmful and is far more serious than ‘hurt feelings’ or ‘banter,’ but very often it is not illegal. The Crown Prosecution Service deemed much of the racist abuse targeted at the England squad’s Black male footballers after the Euros 2020 final as falling below this criminal threshold, for example, despite police forces interpreting it otherwise.

This abuse, as is the case with much of the abusive content that can be found online, was in direct opposition to the community guidelines and terms of service of, for example, Twitter and Facebook. Ofcom’s role as regulator would not be to make this content illegal but rather to hold tech companies to account for the rules that they themselves have set. Other social media companies have set rules that allow far more harmful speech on their platforms.

Our online communities are as real as our offline ones and everyone has a right to thrive both online and offline. We all have the right to participate in public life — online abuse curtails that right, especially for particular, targeted individuals like Black women, and pushes targeted individuals and specific communities away from being able to realise this right online in their everyday lives. Women and girls, particularly those from marginalised groups are paying the price as tech companies are not acting to protect their rights to free speech and not enforcing clear standards for respectful participation online.

As the new Prime Minister and new Culture Secretary talk of ‘tweaking’ the Online Safety Bill to ensure it does not impinge on our rights to freedom of expression, we cannot forget that ending and mitigating online abuse is an integral part of supporting freedom of expression of those that are frequently and disproportionately silenced online.