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Bishop of Gloucester urges greater protection for women online

18 May 2023

‘If we allow a culture of intimidation and misogyny to exist online, it will spill over to offline experiences’

THE Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, called for greater protection for women and girls to be included in the Online Safety Bill, as it reached its House of Lords Committee Stage.

“Violence against women and girls is an abomination,” she said on Tuesday. “If we allow a culture of intimidation and misogyny to exist online, it will spill over to offline experiences. . . I hesitate to differentiate between the real and virtual worlds, because that is simply not how we live our lives. Interactions online are informed by face-to-face interactions, and vice versa.”

Bishop Treweek was speaking in support of amendments moved by Baroness Morgan of Cotes, a Conservative and a former Secretary of State for Education, and for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“Women and girls experience disproportionate levels of abuse online,” Baroness Morgan said. “They experience a vast array of abuse online because of their gender — including cyberflashing, harassment, rape threats, and stalking.”

She said that fear of harassment was having a disproportionate impact on women’s, including MPs’, freedom of speech. She referred to research by the Fawcett Society, which suggested that 73 per cent of female MPs, compared with 51 per cent of male MPs, avoided speaking on certain topics online out of fear of the consequences of doing so.

“This is not to say that boys and men do not experience abuse online, but the fact is that women and girls are several times more likely to be abused,” she said. “People online should be allowed to debate and disagree with each other, but discussions can and should be had without the threat of rape or harassment.”

Her amendments sought to introduce a specific code of practice on the protection of women and girls, and the adoption in the Bill of a clear definition of gender-based violence.

“The value of having a code lies in its systemic approach,” she said. “It does not focus on individual items of content — which is one of the worries that have been expressed, both in this House and outside — but it focuses the platforms’ minds on the whole environment in which the tech-enabled abuse occurs.”

Bishop Treweek also emphasised the importance of a separate code of practice on violence against women and girls, and argued that it was necessary for free speech: “Without this code of conduct, the Bill will fail to address duties of care in relation to preventing domestic abuse and violence against women and girls in a holistic and encompassing way.

“The onus should not be on women and girls to remove themselves from online spaces; we have seen plenty of that in physical spaces over the years. Women and girls must be free to appropriately express themselves online and offline without fear of harassment.”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, responded to Baroness Morgan’s amendments. “All service providers must understand the systemic risks facing women and girls through their illegal content and child safety risk assessments. They must then put in place measures that manage and mitigate these risks,” he said.

He dismissed the idea of a separate code of practice, however, saying that the planned rules, overseen by Ofcom, “will cover protections against violence against women and girls”.

The amendment concerning the code of practice was withdrawn at the close of the day’s debate. The Committee Stage is due to continue next week.

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