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Women and girls are now named in the Online Safety Bill: What does this mean in practice?

Over the next three weeks, we will explore Glitch’s views on the Online Safety Bill, firstly looking at what it means for women and girls to be named in the Bill, secondly what the Bill means for Black women; and finally what happens next.

It took six years, but finally women and girls are named in the Online Safety Bill. Glitch worked tirelessly to ensure that the voices and experiences of Black women and girls were heard, with over 100,000 of you signing the petition started by Glitch’s Founder and CEO Seyi Akiwowo and Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Andrea Simon, and handed into 10 Downing Street in January 2023. We worked to ensure that these voices were raised at parliamentary evidence sessions, committee sittings and debates on the Bill to ensure that the new law responds to the significantly high levels of online abuse and gender-based violence that Black women in particular face on social media platforms .

We raised awareness in partnership with BT and EE Hope United on the #MakeItSafer campaign. Again and again, we stressed that you cannot take a gender-neutral approach to a gendered, racialised problem like digital misogynoir.

As the Online Safety Bill returns to parliament to complete its final stages before it becomes law, the end is now in sight with the Bill set to become the Online Safety Act and begin on the long road towards implementation, under the new regulator Ofcom.

After years of deliberation and months of high-quality debate in the Lords, the Bill has changed in several significant ways. This blog post lays out where the Bill is now, reflects on the long road we took to get here, and outlines what needs to happen going forward.

Women and Girls Named:

Now that the Bill does name women and girls 7 times, does this mean that we wholeheartedly support this bill? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The Online Safety Bill is a huge, sprawling document aiming to cover a vast range of safety issues. It has only just named the gendered nature of online violence in its 300+ pages, which means that we have not been able to focus on broader issues with the Bill.

Instead of the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Code of Practice we called for, the new regulator Ofcom will produce guidance for social media platforms summarising measures that could be taken to reduce the risk of harm to women and girls. You might well ask: what does this mean in practice? That is a key question the government still needs to answer.

The clear differences between a code of practice and guidance are legally hard to distinguish: neither is formally binding, though the fact that the Bill includes both Codes and guidance suggests there will need to be a distinction between the two. While we wait to see how Ofcom makes this distinction, we can suppose that it may be that a code is more hard-hitting with more weight in relation to compliance. While guidance is normally an advisory document, it cannot just be ignored. We thank Professor Lorna Woods for this legal analysis on the distinction between a code and guidance in the context of the Bill.

In the Commons debate on the bill on 12 September the minister Paul Scully stated “the Bill will require Ofcom to:

  • Produce guidance on online harms that disproportionately affect women and girls and to provide examples of best practice to providers, and
  • It will require providers to bring together in one clear place all the measures that they take to tackle online abuse against women and girls on their platforms.
  • The Bill will also require Ofcom to consult the Victims’ Commissioner and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, in addition to the Children’s Commissioner, while preparing codes of practice. That change to the Bill will ensure that the voices of victims of abuse are brought into the consultation period.”

The inclusion of controlling or coercive behaviour as a priority offence is a significant win for VAWG charities who campaigned strongly on this issue. Likewise, many welcomed the new offences relating to intimate image abuse, including the criminalisation of deepfakes, an area championed particularly by Dame Maria Miller MP in the Commons in relation to nudification apps. We know from our work with ENAR — the European Network Against Racism — that deepfake abuse is highly gendered, sexualised, and far more harmful when also racialised against Black women and other Black marginalised genders, like trans women and non-binary people.

While we continue to raise questions about how this Bill will practically impact Black women’s lives, we have taken pause to acknowledge that our major aim has been achieved — and is a significant shift.