Draft Online Safety Bill Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:51 pm on 13th January 2022.

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Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) 3:51 pm, 13th January 2022

I, too, want to thank the Joint Committee for its very thorough report and for the recommendations it has made to the upcoming online safety legislation. As has already been mentioned, bringing our legislation on harmful online content into the 21st century is long overdue.

Today, I want to speak about a very particular but sadly prevalent harm: violence against women and girls. The year 2021 was a watershed moment for violence against women and girls, at least in terms of discussion around the extent of the problem. I thank each and every one of my constituents in Bath who wrote to me about these issues. We need those conversations about online violence against women and girls. The experiences of women and men online are often very different. Gendered harms are endemic. The Government have a responsibility to recognise and take meaningful steps in the Online Safety Bill to reduce those harms. I share the Joint Committee’s concern that any Bill aimed at improving online safety that does not require companies to act on misogynistic abuse would not be credible.

I welcome the Committee’s recommendation that cyber-flashing should be made illegal. Mrs Miller has already touched on that issue. Cyber-flashing is a particularly prevalent form of online violence against women and it disproportion- ately affects young women and girls. Some 76% of girls aged 12 to 18, and 41% of all women, have reported being sent unsolicited penis images. According to the dating app Bumble, 48% of millennial women said they had been sent an unsolicited sexual image in the last year alone. Like real life flashing, cyber-flashing can frighten. It can humiliate. It can violate boundaries. It is a form of sexual harassment from which even the physical boundaries of a home offer no respite. In the words of one woman who shared her experiences, cyber-flashing is “relentless”. It can cause many women to police their online activity to avoid receiving those types of images.

All too often the trauma that women experience is trivialised. Unlike in Scotland, there is no effective route to prosecution for cyber-flashing for those who experience it in England and Wales. I urge Ministers to use the Bill to close this loophole in the law. This issue, at its heart, is about consent, and consent is the principle on which new a cyber-flashing measure should be based. A consent-based approach focuses on the core wrong and makes it easier for recipients to report instances of cyber-flashing.

Nearly four years ago, I presented my upskirting Bill to the House. I argued then that upskirting should be an offence regardless of the motivation of the perpetrator. That is because upskirting causes significant harm to the victim regardless of the intentions behind it. The same is true of cyber-flashing. It was the approach taken in Texas where it is now illegal to send unsolicited genital images. I recommend Bumble for its work on this campaign, and I hope that Members across the House will add their support to it, so that we can replicate the approach in England and Wales that has been taken by Texas. Various Ministers have now signalled their support for criminalising cyber-flashing. That is very welcome, but the Government must act without delay.

As digital spaces become an ever greater part of our lives, we must ensure that an increasing number of people have a route to justice.