30 November 2022

The need for a VAWG code of practice in the Online Safety Bill – Open letter to Michelle Donelan

Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
30 November 2022

Online Safety Bill and Violence Against Women and Girls

Dear Secretary of State,

We write to you today as a coalition of charities, academics and campaigners to urge you to introduce a mandated Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Code of Practice in the Online Safety Bill.

The Prime Minister has made welcome commitments to treat violence against women and girls as the national emergency it is, and there is strong consensus across Parliament that more must be done to tackle online violence against women and girls. We welcome the news of the Bill’s imminent return to the House of Commons, and the steps the government has thus far taken to strengthen provisions relating to violence against women and girls. However, there is more to do to ensure the Bill protects women and girls.

You will know the scale of the problem facing us – 1 in 3 UK women (36%) have experienced online abuse or harassment perpetrated on social media, and 4 in 5 grooming cases last year were against girls. During the pandemic, internet use and online abuse increased – 48% of respondents to Glitch and EVAW’s survey reported suffering from gender-based abuse, with higher rates of online abuse experienced by Black and minoritised women and non-binary people. Online platforms have failed to respond to this crisis. The women and girls we support and work with tell us how these failures have left them retraumatised, at increased risk of harm and abuse, and silenced online:

“My ex would post horrible things, threatening things like, “Tell her I’m coming for her.” He hacked into every single social media account I had and then changed my passwords. He would contact me through my professional and personal accounts with hundreds of messages. I reported to Facebook, and they just came back with, “you can block this person’s account.” I was frustrated that there wasn’t any action. I ended up deleting [many of] my accounts. I was in a really dark place, him constantly posting stuff – I had really bad anxiety. I’d have panic attacks and it was [a] constant worry of what he’s going to post next. Is it going to impact my job? Am I ever going to be able to move forward? My new partner as well, is he going to stay with me? … I was at the point where I wanted to end my life.”

We therefore urge you to include VAWG in the list of mandatory Codes of Practice within the Bill.

Our shared view is that the inclusion of a mandated Code is a proportionate and necessary response to the growing emergence of online forms of violence against women and girls. A Code would provide recommended guidance and best practice on the appropriate prevention and response to VAWG. Rather than simply encouraging platforms to take generic approaches to moderating online harms, this guidance would speak specifically to women and girls’ experiences of abuse and would send a clear message that companies must prioritise and invest in women’s safety.

VAWG warrants a similar level of prioritisation to Codes already mandated in the Bill, such as those on terrorism and child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA). There is good reason to specifically prioritise VAWG alongside terrorism and CSEA, given that these three issues are all to be included in the Strategic Policing Requirement.3 The inclusion of VAWG would also help deliver on national and international commitments, such as the Tackling VAWG Strategy and G7 Ministerial Commitments.

In light of plans to remove provisions relating to “legal but harmful” content to adults, there is an even stronger case for a VAWG Code of Practice, given that we were previously assured that one of the ways the Bill would tackle VAWG would be through the likely inclusion of “misogynistic abuse” as priority “legal but harmful” content.

Whilst in theory Ofcom has discretion to create further Codes of Practice beyond those mandated in the Bill, they have been clear that their rationale is to develop the Codes and guidance directly listed in the Bill as a matter of priority. By Ofcom’s own estimations (before the Bill was delayed) mandated Codes will not be finalised until late 2024. We do not think it is appropriate to leave women and girls at risk on the basis of a potential non-mandated VAWG Code being developed sometime after 2025 at the earliest, if at all.

As a coalition with expertise and insight of women and girls’ experiences of online abuse and harassment, we stand ready and willing to work with you to ensure this legislation and the regulatory framework delivers for women. Earlier this year, and with industry input, we produced a Code ready-made for adoption. This Code takes an intersectional approach to the harms women and girls experience online and is supported by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner.

We urge you to introduce a mandated Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Code of Practice in the Bill. With this straightforward change, this legislation will have the potential to be truly transformative for millions of women and girls.

Yours sincerely,

Ruth Davison, CEO, Refuge
Andrea Simon, Director, End Violence Against Women Coalition
Clare McGlynn KC (Hon), Professor of Law, Durham University
Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and CEO, Glitch
Baroness Beeban Kidron, Founder, 5Rights Foundation
William Perrin, Trustee, Carnegie UK
Saskia Garner, Head of Policy & Campaigns, Suzy Lamplugh Trust
Professor Lorna Woods OBE, Professor of Internet Law, University of Essex
Sir Peter Wanless, CEO, NSPCC

CC Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister for the Union, and Minister for the Civil Service
Rt Hon Suella Braverman KC MP, Home Secretary
Rt Hon Kemi Badenoch MP, Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities
Sarah Dines MP, Minister for Safeguarding