Online abuse against women and young girls is putting democracy at risk, according to a leading legal expert in the field of image-based sexual abuse, honorary KC Clare McGlynn.
Clare McGlynn is currently advising the online safety charity South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL), on the development of their new online platform, Minerva, which is intended to equip women with the tools, knowledge and resources they need to find safety and regain control.
Her comments come as the passage through parliament of The Online Safety Bill has paused as the government amends parts that it fears will impact on free speech.
Professor McGlynn said: “For those concerned about adverse impacts on free speech, in my view the Online Safety Bill actually enhances democratic rights. In safeguarding women and young girls at risk of violent and hateful acts, it enables their democratic participation in society.”
Minerva will be a 24/7 secure platform that will aim to ease the reporting of online abuse, report crimes and help women re-build their lives. The charity is consulting with the police, charities, the Crown Prosecution Service, and social media platforms to inform the new platform.
A Professor of Law at Durham University, Clare McGlynn has helped shape new criminal laws on image based sexual abuse, and worked with tech companies to improve their policies and enhance support for victim-survivors.
Professor McGlynn said: “As well as the very direct impact on individuals, online harassment and abuse causes considerable negative social and cultural impacts, with people withdrawing from cultural engagement and civic life. Our democracy in general is threatened by the prevalence of online abuse and online hate.”
The Online Safety Bill is designed to protect people online and force large tech companies to regulate content more tightly.
A 2020 UNESCO Global study by the International Centre for Journalists found 73% of female journalists say they have experienced online abuse and harassment.
“All of our public lives become adversely impacted because there is less of a variety and diversity of voices. They’re not heard because online abuse pushes you offline. Which of course at one level exactly what misogynistic online abuse is designed to do. It’s designed to put you back in your place, and get you off the internet.”
Professor McGlynn added: “The Online Safety Bill, alongside platforms like Minerva, represent a step-change in how we tackle online abuse, helping to reduce harms and provide greater support for victims.”
SWGfL runs the Revenge Porn Helpline which has seen caseloads increase year-on-year. Since 2015, the charity has removed over 270,000 images of intimate image abuse.
The charity commissioned research from the University of Suffolk to help inform the development of Minerva and identify barriers for women.
Research fellow Megan Hermolle and Dr Katherine Allen, who specialises in Trauma, Injustice, Violence and Abuse (TIVA) at the Institute of Social Justice and Crime, conducted the research. Their interim report, Project Minerva, summarises six-months of research focussed on the forms of online abuse and its impacts.
It found that one in four women in the UK don’t speak about or report experiences of online abuse, suggesting a significant ‘dark figure’ of undetected victim-survivors.
Regarding the behavioural impacts of online abuse, participants reported limiting their use of online spaces and communication.
More than half of participants (55.9%) stopped or reduced online interactions, 47.5% stopped or reduced their use of social media, 39% expressed themselves less online.
There was also a substantial impact on some participants’ offline interactions and relationships, with 32.2% reporting that they expressed themselves less in real life, with 24.6% becoming isolated from family and friends.
Online public shaming was related to self-isolation and expressing themselves less in real life, reducing online interaction and stopping attending online events.
The report stated: “This chilling effect on women’s expression and ability to access to public spaces underlines the silencing effect of online abuse.”
Sophie Mortimer, Revenge Porn Helpline manager at SWGfL said: “Just one in four are reporting online abuse. Everyone who works in this field wants to change that stat. Helping to inform this new platform and with the ambition to drastically improve support for victims, we are working with experts, from the law, police, to leading tech developers, to offer combined support and resources to counter online abuse.”
Minerva is being developed in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), funded by the Tampon Tax Fund. It will be launched in March 2023.
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About South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL)
SWGfL is a charitable trust (charity number 1120354), with an international reputation working to ensure that everyone can benefit from technology, free from harm. Over 21 years old, the charity is responsible for award winning services, resources and campaigns as well as operating four Helplines that each support victims of differing online harms. It works with various Government Departments both at home and abroad and has addressed conferences across Europe, America and Africa.
SWGfL, alongside partners Childnet and Internet Watch Foundation, lead the UK Safer Internet Centre. The Centre is the national awareness centre and is responsible for raising the nation’s attention to online safety issues as well as managing online criminal content and supporting professionals and the public via its unique helpline and reporting platform.
Minerva is a secure platform for victims to report and remove harmful or inappropriate online content.
The project is led by the South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL) in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), funded by the Tampon Tax Fund.
The platform is also being developed with law enforcement in mind as it will create a timeline of events, log reporting activity and time and date of incidents of abuse, both online and offline.
It will also provide advice, direction and signpost to appropriate and relevant support services.
Minerva will be launched in March 2023.