Survivors of online abuse “ignored and overlooked by tech companies” write to PM

Survivors of internet grooming and exploitation have urged the Prime Minister to strengthen the online safety bill as they said tech companies have ignored and overlooked the violence they face.

The group, including online safety activists whose names have been changed to protect their identities following abuse, have written to Rishi Sunak to repeat calls for a mandatory code of conduct against violence against women and girls. (VAWG) in the bill.

Other signees include former Love Island contestant Sharon Gaffka, TV presenter Charlie Webster and presenter and activist Natasha Devon.

Former Love Islander Sharon Gaffka is one of the signatories to a new letter to the PM on online safety (Ian West/PA)

Former Love Islander Sharon Gaffka is one of the signatories to a letter to the PM on online safety (Ian West/PA)

Ms Gaffka has previously spoken out about being the recipient of unsolicited pictures, threats of sexual assault and misogynistic abuse online on a daily basis.

The letter comes as a survey commissioned by the NSPCC suggested that an overwhelming majority of people (79%) think the bill should take specific action to protect women and girls from violence and harmful content online.

The YouGov online survey of 2,031 adults suggests there is huge public support for the campaign, the NSPCC said.

The bill, aimed at tackling illegal and harmful content by imposing new legal requirements on big tech companies, is currently under discussion in the House of Lords.

The letter to Mr Sunak describes violence against women and girls online as a “pervasive and growing threat” affecting too many people across the UK.

The signatories say: “Although our experiences vary, we have all been ignored and overlooked by tech companies who have not taken the violence experienced by women and girls online seriously enough.

“Tech companies have failed to recognize the risks posed by their platforms, designed systems that expose us to significant harm, and have made it dangerous for us to report our abuses.

“They have never seen our perspective or our experiences as something to learn from, listen to and act on, but instead operate independently of the women and girls who address violence on their platforms. “

A code of conduct, they said, “would guide online services on how to address VAWG online, ensuring harm prevention is built into platforms.”

The group argues that unless companies are mandated to do so, “the specific risks women and girls face will continue to go unaddressed.”

They added, “We need to be able to assess the steps companies are taking and hold them accountable for implementing meaningful changes that offer their users better protection.”

NSPCC Head of Policy Anna Edmundson said: “There is no way we can address violence against women and girls without addressing how online services are being used as a platform to target girls for harassment and abuse and to radicalize kids with a sexist ideology.

“The government has signaled its intention to put violence against women and girls on an equal footing with terrorism and child abuse offline but, right now, its online response is woefully insufficient.”

While colleagues in the House of Lords understood the line-by-line scrutiny of the bill this week, a former Conservative minister accused tech companies of behaving with an “air of exceptionalism”.

Apple and Google app stores should have the same obligations to child safety as corner shops, it was argued, as Parliament heard young people could access adult products offering casual sex and gambling platform gambling.

Lord Bethell said this is allowed even when the tech giants “know emphatically” that the user is a child.

Proposed changes to the bill include requiring platforms involved in the distribution of online content to produce risk assessments and then take any necessary measures, such as age assurance checks, to prevent children from coming into contact with harmful material.

A government spokesman said: “We are committed to protecting women and girls online. The online safety bill will address child sexual exploitation and abuse, ensuring that tech companies fulfill their moral duty not to blind themselves and law enforcement agencies to unprecedented levels of exploitation on their platforms.

“The bill also makes it a priority for tech platforms to proactively address the most harmful content that disproportionately impacts women and girls, such as revenge pornography and controlling or coercive behavior.”

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