UK

The government’s flagship online safety bill is “massively letting down” women and girls by failing to include specific protections to prevent misogynistic abuse, a senior Tory peer has said.

Baroness Nicky Morgan has joined campaigners and celebrities in calling for a violence against women and girls (VAWG) code of practice to be included in the legislation – telling Sky News not doing so would be “a huge missed opportunity”.

“I think the biggest shortfall of the bill is that it doesn’t mention women and girls specifically at all and yet we know that women and girls are significantly more likely to be harassed online,” she said.

“Many of the (social media) platforms have become just a focus for watching misogyny and a place where women and girls feel very uncomfortable.

“So many people often remove themselves from the online space, which is not we want at all – we wouldn’t accept it in the offline world.”

With the bill entering its scrutiny stage in the House of Lords, Lady Morgan is tabling an amendment calling for the regulator Ofcom to enforce a VAWG code of practice tech platforms would have to follow or face fines if they don’t.

The former cabinet minister said while the government is criminalising offences such as cyberstalking and sharing intimate images, this does not go far enough and will fail to stop the daily online abuse women face.

More on Online Safety Bill

While previous versions of the long-awaited legislation included a requirement for tech platforms to remove content that is “legal but harmful”, such as misogynistic views, last year that was scrapped with companies told instead to provide adult users with tools to hide content they don’t want to see.

However, Ms Morgan, who was culture secretary when the policy was first proposed in 2019, said the “whole nature of the way these online platforms are designed” needs to be looked at so women and girls are thought about “right from the start”.

“It’s about thinking, how do the way algorithms work to disadvantage women and girls? How is hateful content allowed to just proliferate online?” she said.

“Not having this amendment will be a huge missed opportunity.

“I think the bill in its current form would massively let down women and girls and wouldn’t offer the protection that could be available if we don’t get this code of practice legislated.”

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The bill puts the onus on companies to protect people from the likes of abusive messages, bullying and pornography.

Former Love Island contestant ‘receiving voice notes of rape threats’

Lady Morgan was speaking outside the Houses of Parliament as campaigners gathered to highlight the abuse women face online.

Reality TV personality Georgia Harrison, whose ex-boyfriend Stephen Bear was recently jailed for sharing a video of the couple having sex, said women and girls are being left “traumatised” by social media harassment as she backed calls for greater protections in the online safety bill.

“If you go through my DMs, it’s a scary place to be right now. There are thousands of women who are struggling online and they don’t have a voice,” she told Sky News.

“If we can get that [code of practice] onto the online safety bill we can protect them in the future.”

Ms Harrison spoke in front of an installation of a giant mobile phone and signs warning of a lack of protection for women and girls, erected by charity Refuge “to highlight the multiple spaces online where women are at risk of abuse”.

She was joined by former Love Island contestant Sharon Gaffka, an ambassador for Refuge, who reflected on her own experiences of online abuse

“I receive unsolicited images daily from men online, sometimes even messages of sexual violence include voice notes of threats of rape. The more I speak about it, the higher level of messages I receive.”

Ms Gaffka, 27, said she lives in fear of the online abuse being carried out in real life.

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Why the Online Safety Bill is proving so controversial

“I don’t think people realise how dangerous it is.

“I have threads about me in graphic groups talking about my body in demeaning and graphic ways – it’s terrifying because online doesn’t stay online.

“I work closely with Thames Valley Police… very serious perpetrators of sexual violence start with very low levels of crime such as unsolicited images.”

Research from Refuge has found one in three women in the UK have experienced abuse or harassment online.

Jessica Eagelton, a policy manager at Refuge, said there is a “misalignment with the bill and wider commitments to tackling violence and women and girls”.

She called the proposed changes “absolutely urgent”, adding: “This is once in a generation legislation to regulate social media companies so it’s really important violence against women and girls is at the centre of that.”

The Online Safety Bill aims to regulate online content to help keep users safe, especially children, and to put the onus on companies to protect people from the likes of abusive messages, bullying and pornography.

But while some are calling for the bill to go further, tech companies fear the bill is too far-reaching and unclear about what they will be required to censor – while MPs have also expressed concerns about freedom of speech.

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