Amendment 97

Online Safety Bill - Committee (7th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 16 May 2023.

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Baroness Morgan of Cotes:

Moved by Baroness Morgan of Cotes

97: Clause 36, page 36, line 42, at end insert “including a code of practice describing measures for the purpose of compliance with the relevant duties so far as relating to violence against women and girls.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would impose an express obligation on OFCOM to issue a code of practice on violence against women and girls rather than leaving it to OFCOM’s discretion. This would ensure that Part 3 providers recognise the many manifestations of online violence, including illegal content, that disproportionately affect women and girls.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes Conservative

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to move Amendment 97 and speak to Amendment 304, both standing in my name and supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. I am very grateful for their support. I look forward to hearing the arguments by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for Amendment 104 as well, which run in a similar vein.

These amendments are also supported by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the Revenge Porn Helpline, BT, EE and more than 100,000 UK citizens who have signed End Violence Against Women’s petition urging the Government to better protect women and girls in the Bill.

I am also very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee—I know I pronounced that incorrectly—the very distinguished former Northern Ireland politician. She cannot be here to speak today in favour of the amendment but asked me to put on record her support for it.

I also offer my gratitude to the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Glitch, Refuge, Carnegie UK, NSPCC, 5Rights, Professor Clare McGlynn and Professor Lorna Woods. Between them all, they created the draft violence against women and girls code of practice many months ago, proving that a VAWG code of practice is not only necessary but absolutely deliverable.

Much has already been said on this, both here and outside the Chamber. In the time available, I will focus my case for these amendments on two very specific points. The first is why VAWG, violence against women and girls, should have a specific code of practice legislated for it, rather than other content we might debate. The second is what having a code of practice means in relation to the management of that content.

Ofcom has already published masses of research showing that abuse online is gendered. The Government’s own fact sheet, sent to us before these debates, said that women and girls experience disproportionate levels of abuse online. They experience a vast array of abuse online because of their gender, including cyberflashing, harassment, rape threats and stalking. As we have already heard and will continue to hear in these debates, some of those offences and abuse reach a criminal threshold and some do not. That is at the heart of this debate.

The first death threat that I received—I have received a number, sadly, both to me and to my family—did not talk about death or dying. It said that I was going to be “Jo Coxed”. Of course, I reported that to Twitter and the AI content moderator. Because it did not have those words in it, it was not deemed to be a threat. It was not until I could speak to a human being—in this case, the UK public affairs manager of Twitter, to whom I am very grateful—that it even started to be taken seriously.

The fear of being harassed is impacting women’s freedom of speech. The Fawcett Society has found that 73% of female MPs, versus 51% of male MPs, say that they avoid speaking online in certain discussions because of fear of the consequences of doing so. Other women in the public eye, such as the presenter Karen Carney, have also been driven offline due to gendered abuse.

Here is the thing I cannot reconcile with the government response on this so far. This Government have absolutely rightly recognised that violence against women and girls is a national threat. They have made it a part of the strategic policing requirement. If tackling online abuse against women and girls is a priority, as the Government say, and if, as in the stated manifesto commitment of 2019, they want the UK to be

“the safest place in the world to be online”,

why are the words “women and girls” not used once in the 262 pages of the current draft of the Bill?

The Minister has said that changes have been made in the other House on the Bill—I understand that—and that it is now focused more on the protection of children in relation to certain content, whereas adults are deemed to be able to choose more what they see and how they see it. But there is a G in VAWG, for girls. The code of practice that we are talking about would benefit that very group of people—young girls, who are children—whom the Government have said that they really want to protect through the Bill.

Online harassment does not affect only women in the public eye but all women. I suspect that we all now know the statistic that women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men. In other words, to have an online presence as a woman is to expect harassment. That is not to say that men do not face abuse online, but a lot of the online abuse is deliberately gendered and is targeted at women. Do men receive rape threats on the same vast scale as women and young girls?

It should not be the public’s job to force a platform to act on the harmful content that it is hosting, just as it should not be a woman’s job to limit her online presence to prevent harassment. But the sad reality is that, in its current form, the Bill is doing very little to force platforms to act holistically in relation to violence against women and girls and to change their culture online.

The new VAWG-relevant criminal offences listed in the Bill—I know that my noble friend the Minister will rely on these in his response to the debate—including cyberflashing and coercive and controlling behaviour, are an important step, but even these new offences have their own issues, which I suspect we will come on to debate in the next day of Committee: for example, cyberflashing being motive-based instead of consent-based. Requiring only those platforms caught by the Bill to look at the criminal offences individually ignores the rest of the spectrum of gendered abuse.

Likewise, the gender-neutral approach in the Bill will harm children. NSPCC research found that in 2021-22, four in five victims of online grooming offences were girls. The Internet Watch Foundation, an organisation we are going to talk about in the next group, has found in recently published statistics that girls are more likely to be seriously abused online. I have already stated that 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. This is not an argument against free speech; 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.

Again, the Government will argue that the triple-shield approach to combating legal but harmful content online will sufficiently protect women and girls, but this is not the case. Instead of removing this content, the Bill’s user empowerment tools—much debated already—expect women to shield themselves from seeing it. All this does is allow misogynistic and often violent conversations to continue without women knowing about them, the result of which can be extremely dangerous. A victim of domestic abuse could indeed block the user threatening to kill them, but that does not stop that user from continuing to post the threats he is making, or even posting photos of the victim’s front door. Instead of protecting the victim, these tools potentially leave them even more vulnerable to real-life harms. Likewise, the triple shield will rely too heavily on platforms setting their own terms and conditions. We have just heard my noble friend the Minister using this argument in the last group, but the issue is that the platforms can choose to water down their terms and conditions, and Ofcom is then left without recourse.

I turn to what a violence against women and girls code of practice would mean. It could greatly reduce all the dangers I have just laid out. It would ensure that services regularly review their algorithms to stop misogyny going viral, and that moderators are taught, for example, how to recognise different forms of online violence against women and girls, including forms of tech abuse. Ofcom has described codes of practice as

“key documents, which set out the steps services can take to comply with their duties”.

Services can choose to take an alternative approach to complying with their duties, provided that it is consistent with the duties in the Bill, but codes will provide a clear route to compliance, and Ofcom envisages that many services will therefore take advantage of them.

The value of having a code lies in its systemic approach. 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. The code of practice would make the UK the first country in the world to hold tech companies specifically to account on tackling violence against women and girls. It would also make the Online Safety Bill more future-proof, because it would provide a proactive and agile route for identifying and problem-solving new forms of online VAWG as they emerge, rather than delaying action until the creation of a new criminal offence when the next relevant piece of primary legislation comes along.

I finish by saying that throughout the Bill’s journey through Parliament, we have debated whether it sufficiently protects women and girls. The objective answer is, “No, it does not”, but there appears to be a real reluctance to accept this as fact. Instead of just agreeing to disagree on this topic, we instead have an opportunity here to protect millions of women and girls online with a violence against women and girls code of practice. So I ask noble Lords to support this critical amendment, not just for the sake of themselves, their daughters, their sisters or their wives but for the sake of the millions of women whose names we will never know but who will be grateful that we stood on their side on the issue of gendered online violence. I beg to move.

Photo of The Bishop of Gloucester The Bishop of Gloucester Bishop 6:45, 16 May 2023

My Lords, I have added my name to Amendments 97 and 304, and I wholeheartedly agree with all that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said by means of her excellent introduction. I look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has to say as she continues to bring her wisdom to the Bill.

Let me say from the outset, if it has not been said strongly enough already, that violence against women and girls is an abomination. If we allow a culture of intimidation and misogyny to exist online, it will spill over to offline experiences. According to research by Refuge, almost one in five domestic abuse survivors who experienced abuse or harassment from their partner or former partner via social media said they felt afraid of being attacked or being subjected to physical violence as a result. Some 15% felt that their physical safety was more at risk, and 5% felt more at risk of so-called honour-based violence. Shockingly, according to Amnesty International, 41% of women who experienced online abuse or harassment said that these experiences made them feel that their physical safety was threatened.

Throughout all our debates, 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. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the lived experience of the majority—particularly, dare I say, the younger generations. As Anglican Bishop for HM Prisons, I recognise the complexity of people’s lives and the need to tackle attitudes underpinning behaviours. Tackling the root causes of offending should always be a priority; there is potential for much harm later down the line if we ignore warning signs of hatred and misogyny. Research conducted by Refuge found that one in three women has experienced online abuse or harassment perpetrated on social media or another online platform at some point in their lives. That figure rises to almost two in three, or 62%, among young women. This must change.

We did some important work in your Lordships’ House during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act to ensure that all people, including women and girls, are safe on our streets and in their homes. As has been said, introducing a code of practice as outlined will help the Government meet their aim of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, and it will align with the Government’s wider priority to tackle violence against women and girls as a strategic policing requirement. Other strategic policing requirements, including terrorism and child sexual exploitation, have online codes of practice, so surely it follows that there should be one for VAWG to ensure that the Bill aligns with the Government’s position elsewhere and that there is not a gap left online.

I know the Government care deeply about tackling violence against women and girls, and I believe they have listened to some concerns raised by the sector. The inclusion of the domestic abuse and victims’ commissioners as statutory consultees is welcomed, as is the Government’s amendment to recognise controlling and coercive behaviour as a priority offence. However, 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. We must do all we can to prevent expressions of misogyny from transforming into violent actions.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

My Lords, I have added my name to Amendments 97 and 304, and I support the others in this group. It seems to be a singular failure of any version of an Online Safety Bill if it does not set itself the task of tackling known harms—harms that are experienced daily and for which we have a phenomenal amount of evidence. I will not repeat the statistics given in the excellent speeches made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and the right reverend Prelate, but will instead add two observations.

I am of the generation that saw women break gender barriers and glass ceilings. We were ourselves the beneficiaries of the previous generation, which both intellectually and practically pushed the cause of gender equality. Many of us are also employers, mothers, aunties or friends of a generation in which the majority of the young favour a more gender-equal world. Yet we have seen online the amplification of those who hold a profound resentment of what I would characterise as hard-won and much-needed progress. The vileness and violence of their fury is fuelled by the rapacious appetite of algorithms that profit from engagement, which has allowed gender-based detractors, haters and abusers to normalise misogyny to such a degree that rape threats and threats of violence are trotted out against women for the mildest of perceived infractions. In the case of an academic colleague of mine, her crime—for which she received rape threats—was offering a course in women’s studies.

If the price of having a voice online continues to be that you have to withstand a supercharged swarm of abuse then for many women it is simply not worth it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, they are effectively silenced. This sadly extends to girls, who repeatedly say that, as the statistics persistently show, they are put off any kind of public role and even expressing a view because they fear both judgment on how they look and abuse for what they say. How heart- breaking it is that the organising technology of our time is so regressive for women and girls that the gains we have made in our lifetime are being denied them. This is why I believe that Parliament must be clear that an environment in which women and girls are routinely silenced or singled out for abuse is not okay.

My second observation is slightly counterintuitive, because I so wish for these amendments to find their way into the Bill. I have a sense of disquiet that there will be no similar consideration of other exposed or vulnerable groups that are less well-represented in Parliament. I therefore want to take this opportunity to say once again that we have discussed in our debates on previous groups amendments that would commit the Bill to the Equality Act 2010, with the expectation that companies will adhere to UK law across all groups with protected characteristics, including those who may have more than one protected characteristic, and take note that—this point has been made in a number of briefings—women with disabilities and mixed or global-majority heritage come in for double, sometimes triple, doses of abuse. In saying that, I wish to acknowledge that the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, which make it clear that the discussion of protected characteristics does not in and of itself constitute harm. I very much agree with her on that.

Perhaps this is a good moment to remember that the Bill is proposed as a systems and processes regime—no single piece of content will be at stake but rather, if a company is amplifying and promoting at scale behaviours that hound women and girls out of the public space, Ofcom will have the tools to deal with it. At the risk of repeating myself, these are not open spaces; they are 100% engineered and largely privately owned. I fail to see another environment in which it is either normal or lawful to swarm women with abuse and threat.

On our first day in Committee, the Minister said in his response to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that the Government are very clear on the Bill’s purposes. Among the list of purposes that he gave was

“to protect people who face disproportionate harm online including, for instance, because of their sex or their ethnicity or because they are disabled”.—[Official Report, 19/4/23; col. 724.]

I ask the Minister to make this Bill come true on that purpose.

Photo of Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Deputy Chairman of Committees 7:00, 16 May 2023

My Lords, I strongly support Amendment 97 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. We must strengthen the Bill by imposing an obligation on Ofcom to develop and issue a code of practice on violence against women and girls. This will empower Ofcom and guide services in meeting their duties in regard to women and girls, and encourage them to recognise the many manifestations of online violence that disproportionately affect women and girls.

Refuge, the domestic abuse charity, has seen a growing number of cases of technology-facilitated domestic abuse in recent years. As other noble Lords have said, this tech abuse can take many forms but social media is a particularly powerful weapon for perpetrators, with one in three women experiencing online abuse, rising to almost two in three among young women. Yet the tech companies have been too slow to respond. Many survivors are left waiting weeks or months for a response when they report abusive content, if indeed they receive one at all. It appears that too many services do not understand the risks and nature of VAWG. They do not take complaints seriously and they think that this abuse does not breach community standards. A new code would address this with recommended measures and best practice on the appropriate prevention of and response to violence against women and girls. It would also support the delivery of existing duties set out in the Bill, such as those on illegal content, user empowerment and child safety.

I hope the Minister can accept this amendment, as it would be in keeping with other government policies, such as in the strategic policing requirement, which requires police forces to treat violence against women and girls as a national threat. Adding this code would help to meet the Government’s national and international commitments to tackling online VAWG, such as the tackling VAWG strategy and the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse.

The Online Safety Bill is a chance to act on tackling the completely unacceptable levels of abuse of women and girls by making it clear through Ofcom that companies need to take this matter seriously and make systemic changes to the design and operation of their services to address VAWG. It would allow Ofcom to add this as a priority, as mandated in the Bill, rather than leave it as an optional extra to be tackled at a later date. The work to produce this code has already been done thanks to Refuge and other charities and academics who have produced a model that is freely available and has been shared with Ofcom. So it is not an extra burden and does not need to delay the implementation of the Bill; in fact, it will greatly aid Ofcom.

The Government are to be congratulated on their amendment to include controlling or coercive behaviour in their list of priority offences. I would like to congratulate them further if they can accept this valuable Amendment 97.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, I start by commending my noble friend Lady Morgan on her clear introduction to this group of amendments. I also commend the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on her powerful speech.

From those who have spoken so far, we have a clear picture of the widespread nature of some of the abuse and offences that women experience when they go online. I note from what my noble friend Lady Morgan said that there is widespread support from a range of organisations outside the Committee for this group of amendments. She also made an important and powerful point about the potential chilling effect of this kind of activity on women, including women in public life, being able to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

I feel it is important for me to make it clear that—this is an obvious thing—I very much support tough legal and criminal sanctions against any perpetrator of violence or sexual abuse against women. I really do understand and support this, and hear the scale of the problem that is being outlined in this group of amendments.

Mine is a dissenting voice, in that I am not persuaded by the proposed solution to the problem that has been described. I will not take up a lot of the Committee’s time, but any noble Lords who were in the House when we were discussing a group of amendments on another piece of legislation earlier this year may remember that I spoke against making misogyny a hate crime. The reason why I did that then is similar, in that I feel somewhat nervous about introducing a code of conduct which is directly relevant to women. I do not like the idea of trying to address some of these serious problems by separating women from men. Although I know it is not the intention of a code such as this or any such measures, I feel that it perpetuates a sense of division between men and women. I just do not like the idea that we live in a society where we try to address problems by isolating or categorising ourselves into different groups of people, emphasising the sense of weakness and being victims of any kind of attack or offence from another group, and assuming that everybody who is in the other group will be a perpetrator of some kind of attack, criticism or violence against us.

My view is that, in a world where we see some of this serious activity happening, we should do more to support young men and boys to understand the proper expectations of them. When we get to the groups of amendments on pornography and what more we can do to prevent children’s access to it, I will be much more sympathetic. Forgive me if this sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but I want us to try to generate a society where basic standards of behaviour and social norms are shared between men and women, young and old. I lament how so much of this has broken down, and a lot of the problems we see in society are the fault of political and—dare I say it?—religious leaders not doing more to promote some of those social norms in the past. As I said, I do not want us to respond to the situation we are in by perpetuating more divisions.

I look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister has to say, but I am nervous about the solution proposed in the amendments.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, not least because she became a dissenting voice, and I was dreading that I might be the only one.

First, I think it important that we establish that those of us who have spent decades fighting violence against women and girls are not complacent about it. The question is whether the physical violence we describe in the Bill is the same as the abuse being described in the amendments. I worry about conflating online incivility, abuse and vile things said with physical violence, as is sometimes done.

I note that Refuge, an organisation I have a great deal of respect for, suggested that the user empowerment duties that opted to place the burden on women users to filter out their own online experience was the same as asking women to take control of their own safety and protect themselves offline from violence. I thought that was unfair, because user empowerment duties and deciding what you filter out can be women using their agency.

In that context, I wanted to probe Amendment 104, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and whether affording, as it states, a higher standard of protection to women and girls could actually be disempowering. I am always concerned about discriminatory special treatment for women. I worry that we end up presenting or describing young women as particularly vulnerable due to their sex, overemphasising victimhood. That, in and of itself, can undermine women’s confidence rather than encouraging them to see themselves as strong, resilient and so on. I was especially worried about Amendment 171, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, but she is not here to move it. It states that content that promotes or perpetuates violence against women and girls should be removed, and the users removed if they are identified as creating or even disseminating it.

What always worries me about this is Bill that, because we want to improve the world—I know that is the joint enterprise here—we could get carried away. Whereas in law we have a very narrow definition of what incitement to violence is, here we are not very specific about it. I worry about the low threshold whereby somebody who creates a horrible sexist meme will be punished, but then someone who just retweets it will be treated in the same way. I want to be able to have a conversation about why that is the wrong thing to do. I am worried, as I always am, about censorship and so on.

The statistics are a bit confusing on this. There are often-repeated statistics, but you need to dig down, look at academic papers and talk to people who work in this field. An academic paper from Oxford Internet Surveys from August 2021 notes that the exceptional prevalence of online hostility to women is largely based on anecdotal experience, and that a closer look across the British population, contrary to conventional wisdom, shows that women are not necessarily more likely than men to experience hateful speech online. It also notes, however, that there is empirical evidence to show that subgroups of women—it cites journalists and politicians—can be disproportionately targeted. I will not go through all the statistics, although I do have them here, but there were very small differences of 2% or 3%, and in some instances young men were more likely to suffer abuse.

Ofcom’s Online Nation report of June 2022 says that women are more negatively affected by trolling and so on, but again, I worry about the gender point. I am worried that what we are trying to tackle here is what we all know to be a toxic and nasty political atmosphere in society that is reflected online. We all know what we are talking about. People bandy around the most vile labels; we see that regularly on social media, and, if you are a woman, it does take on this nasty, sexist side. It is incredibly unpleasant.

We also have to recognise that that is a broad, moral, social and cultural problem, which I hope that we will try to counter. I am no men’s rights sympathiser by any stretch, but I also noticed that the Ofcom report said that young men are more likely than women to have experienced seeing potentially harmful behaviour or content online in the four weeks before the survey response—64% of men as against 60% of women. Threats of physical violence were more prevalent with boys than women—16% versus 11%—while sexual violence was the other way around. So I want us to have a sense of proportion and say that no one on the receiving end of this harmful, nasty trolling should be ignored, regardless of their sex.

It is also interesting—I will finish with this—that UK women are avid users of social media platforms, spending more than a quarter of their waking hours online and around half an hour more than men each day. We say that the online world is inhospitable to women, but there are a lot of them on it regardless, so we need a sense of perspective. Ofcom’s report makes the point that, often,

“the benefits of being online outweigh the risks”.

More women than men disagree with that; 63% agree with it compared with 71% of males. But we need a sense of perspective here because, actually, the majority of young men and women like being online. Sometimes it can give young women a sense of solidarity and sisterhood. All the surveys that I have read say that female participants feel less able to share their opinions and use their voice online, and we have to ask why.

The majority of young people who I work with are women. They say the reason they dare not speak online is not misogynist hate speech but cancel culture. They are walking on eggshells, as there are so many things that you are not allowed to say. Your Lordships will also be aware that, in gender-critical circles, for example, a lot of misogynistic hate speech is directed at women who are not toeing the line on a particular orthodoxy today. I do not want a remedy for that toxicity, with women not being sure if they can speak out because of cancel culture, if that remedy introduces more censorious trends.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat 7:15, 16 May 2023

My Lords, it is an honour to follow some very knowledgeable speakers, whose knowledge is much greater than mine. Nevertheless, I feel the importance of this debate above and beyond any other that I can think of on this Bill. However, I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, who said that women should not be victims. They are not victims; they are being victimised. We need a code—the code that is being proposed—not for the victims but for the tech companies, because of the many diverse strands of abuse that women face online. This is an enabler for the tech companies to get their heads around what is coming and to understand it a lot better. It is a helpful tool, not a mollycoddling tool at all.

I strongly agree with everything else, apart from what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, which I will come on to in a second. I and, I am sure, other noble Lords in this Chamber have had many hundreds of emails from concerned people, ordinary people, who nevertheless understand the importance of what this code of practice will achieve today. I speak for them, as well as the others who have supported this particularly important amendment.

As their supporters have pointed out in this Chamber, Amendments 97 and 304 are the top priority for the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, who believes that, if they do not pass, the Bill will not go far enough to prevent and respond effectively to domestic abuse online. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, spoke about the need to keep a sense of proportion, but online abuse is everywhere. According to the charity Refuge—I think this was mentioned earlier—over one-third of women and 62% of young women have experienced online abuse and harassment.

I am sure that the Minister is already aware that a sector coalition of experts on violence against women and girls put together the code of practice that we are discussing today. It is needed, as I have said, because of the many strands of abuse that are perpetuated online. However, compliance with the new terms of service to protect women and girls is not cheap. In cost- driven organisations, the temptation will be to relax standards as time goes by, which we have seen in the past in the cases of Facebook and Twitter. The operators’ feet must be held to the fire with this new, stricter and more comprehensive code. People’s lives depend on it.

In his remarks, can the Minister indicate whether the Government are at least willing to look at this code? Otherwise, can he explain how the Government will ensure that domestic abuse and its component offences are understood by providers in the round?

Photo of Baroness Gohir Baroness Gohir Crossbench

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Baronesses, Lady Morgan and Lady Kidron, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, on Amendment 97 to Clause 36 to mandate Ofcom to produce codes of practice, so that these influential online platforms have to respond adequately to tackle online violence against women and girls.

Why should we care about these codes of practice being in the Bill? Not doing so will have far-reaching consequences, of which we have already heard many examples. First, it will threaten progress on gender equality. As the world moves to an increasingly digital future, with more and more connections and conversations moving online, women must have the same opportunity as men to be a part of the online world and benefit from being in the online space.

Secondly, it will threaten the free speech of women. The voices of women are more likely to be suppressed. Because of abuse, women are more likely to reduce their social media activity or even leave social media platforms altogether.

Thirdly, we will be failing in our obligation to protect the human rights of women. Every woman has the right to be and feel safe online. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who highlighted online abuse due to intersecting identities. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, mentioned that this could cause divisions; there are divisions already, given the level of online abuse faced by women. Until we get an equal and just society, additional measures are needed. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is worried about censorship, but women also have the right to feel safe online and offline. The noble Baroness is worried about whether this is a proportionate response, but I do feel that it is.

Relying on tech companies to self-regulate on VAWG is a bad idea. At present, the overwhelming majority of tech companies are led by men and their employees are most likely to be men, who will be taking decisions on content and on moderating that content. So we are relying on the judgment of a sector that itself needs to be more inclusive of women and is known for not sufficiently tackling the online abuse of women and girls.

I will give a personal example. Someone did not like what I said on Twitter and posted a message with a picture of a noose, which I found threatening. I reported that and got a response to say that it did not violate terms and conditions, so it remained online.

The culture at these tech companies was illustrated a few years ago when employees at Google walked out to protest against sexism. Also, research a couple of years ago by a campaign group called Global Witness found that Facebook used biased algorithms that promoted career and gender stereotypes, resulting in particular job roles being seen by men and others being seen by women. We know that other algorithms are even more harmful and sinister and promote hatred and misogyny. So relying on a sector that may not care much about women’s rights or their well-being to do the right thing is not going to work. Introducing the VAWG code in the Bill will help to make tech companies adequately investigate and respond to reports of abuse and take a proactive approach to minimise and prevent the risk of abuse taking place in the first instance.

I also add my support to the noble Baroness’s Amendment 304, to Clause 207, so that the definition of violence against women and girls is in line with the gold standard framework provided by the Istanbul convention, which was ratified by the UK Government.

The Bill is a unique opportunity to protect women and girls online, so I commend the Government on introducing it to Parliament, but they could do much more to combat violence against women and girls. If they do not, inaction now will result in us sleepwalking into a culture of normalising despicable behaviour towards women even more openly. If online perpetrators of abuse are not tackled robustly now, it will embolden them further to escalate and gaslight victims. The Government must send perpetrators a message that there is no place to hide—not even online. If the Government want the UK to be the safest place in the world to be online, they should agree to these amendments.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 7:30, 16 May 2023

My Lords, I will be very brief. My noble friend has very eloquently expressed the support on these Benches for these amendments, and I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, for setting out the case so extremely convincingly, along with many other noble Lords. It is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, about the prevention of the normalisation of misogyny. As my noble friend said, it is for the tech companies to prevent that.

The big problem is that the Government have got themselves into a position where—except in the case of children—the Bill now deals essentially only with illegal harms, so you have to pick off these harms one by one and create illegality. That is why we had the debate in the last group about other kinds of harm. This is another harm that we are debating, precisely because the Government amended the Bill in the Commons in the way that they did. But it does not make this any less important. It is quite clear; we have talked about terms of service, user empowerment tools, lack of enforcement, lack of compliance and all the issues relating to these harms. The use of the expression “chilling effect”—I think by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—and then the examples given by the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, absolutely illustrated that. We are talking about the impact on freedom of expression.

I am afraid that, once again, I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. Why do I find myself disagreeing on such a frequent basis? I think the harms override the other aspects that the noble Baroness was talking about.

We have heard about the lack of a proper complaints system—we are back to complaints again. These themes keep coming through, and until the Government see that there are flaws in the Bill, I do not think we are going to make a great deal more progress. The figure given was that more than half of domestic abuse survivors did not receive a response from the platform to their report of domestic abuse-related content. That kind of example demonstrates that we absolutely need this code.

There is an absolutely convincing case for what one of our speakers, probably the right reverend Prelate, called a holistic way of dealing with these abuses. That is what we need, and that is why we need this code.

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, the amendments in this group, which I am pleased to speak to now, shine a very bright light on the fact that there is no equality when it comes to abuse. We are not starting at a level playing field. This is probably the only place that I do not want to level up; I want to level down. This is not about ensuring that men can be abused as much as women; it is about the very core of what the Bill is about, which is to make this country the safest online space in the world. That is something that unites us all, but we do not start in the same place.

I thank all noble Lords for their very considered contributions in unpicking all the issues and giving evidence about why we do not have that level playing field. Like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, for her thorough, illustrative and realistic introduction to this group of amendments, which really framed it today. Of course, the noble Baroness is supported in signing the amendment by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester and my noble friend Lord Knight.

The requirement in Amendment 97 that there should be an Ofcom code of practice is recognition that many aspects of online violence disproportionately affect women and girls. I think we always need to come back to that point, because nothing in this debate has taken me away from that very clear and fundamental point. Let us remind ourselves that the online face of violence against women and girls includes—this is not a full list—cyberflashing, abusive pile-ons, incel gangs and cyberstalking, to name but a few. Again, we are not starting from a very simple point; we are talking about an evolving online face of violence against women and girls, and the Bill needs to keep pace.

I associate myself with the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and other noble Lords in thanking and appreciating the groups and individuals who have already done the work, and who have—if I might use the term—an oven-ready code of practice available to the Minister, should he wish to avail himself of it. I share the comments about the lack of logic. If violence against women and girls is part of the strategic policing requirement, and the Home Secretary says that dealing with violence against women and girls is a priority, why is this not part of a joined-up government approach? That is what we should now be seeing in the Bill. I am sure the Minister will want to address that question.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester rightly said that abuse is abuse. Whether it is online or offline, it makes no difference. The positive emphasis should be that women and girls should be able to express themselves online as they should be able to offline. Again, that is a basic underlying point of these amendments.

I listened very closely to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. I understand her nervousness, and she is absolutely right to bring before the Committee that perhaps a code of conduct of this nature could allow and encourage, to quote her, division. The challenge we have is that women and girls have a different level of experience. We all want to see higher standards of behaviour, as the noble Baroness referred to—I know that we will come back to that later. However, I cannot see how not having a code of conduct will assist those higher standards because the proposed code of conduct simply acknowledges the reality, which is that women and girls are 27 times more likely to be abused online than men are. I want to put on record that this is not about emphasising division, saying that it is all right to abuse men or, as the noble Baroness gives me the opportunity to say, saying that all men are somehow responsible—far from it. As ever, this is something that unites us all: the tackling of abuse wherever it takes place.

Amendment 104 in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson proposes an important change to Schedule 4: that

“women and girls, and vulnerable adults” should have a higher standard of protection than other adult users. That amendment is there because the Bill is silent on these groups. There is no mention of them, so we seek to change this through that amendment.

To return to the issue of women and girls, two-thirds of women who report abuse to internet companies do not feel heard. Three-quarters of women change their behaviour after receiving online abuse. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who made the point that the Bill currently assumes that there is no interconnection between different safety duties where somebody has more than one protected characteristic, because it misses reality. One has only to talk to Jewish women to know that, although anti-Semitism knows no bounds, if you are a Jewish woman then there is no doubt that you will be the subject of far greater abuse than your male counterpart. Similarly, women of colour are one-third more likely to be mentioned in abusive tweets than white women. Again, there is no level playing field.

As it stands, the Bill puts an onus on women and girls to protect themselves from online violence and abuse. The problem, as has been mentioned many times, is that user empowerment tools do not incentivise services to address the design of their service, which may be facilitating the spread of violence against women and girls. That point was very well made by my noble friend Lady Healy and the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, in their contributions.

On the question of the current response to violence against women and girls from tech companies, an investigation by the Times identified that platforms such as TikTok and YouTube are profiting from a wave of misogynist content, with a range of self-styled “self-help gurus”, inspired by the likes of Andrew Tate, offering advice to their millions of followers, encouraging men and boys, in the way described by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, to engage with women and girls in such a way that amounts to pure abuse, instructing boys and men to ensure that women and girls in their lives are “compliant”, “insecure” and “well- behaved”. This is not the kind of online space that we seek.

I hope that the Minister, if he cannot accept the amendments, will give his assurance that he can understand what is behind them and the need for action, and will reflect and come back to your Lordships’ House in a way that can allow us to level down, rather than level up, the amount of abuse that is aimed at men but also, in this case in particular, at women and girls.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 7:45, 16 May 2023

My Lords, protecting women and girls is a priority for His Majesty’s Government, at home, on our streets and online. This Bill will provide vital protections for women and girls, ensuring that companies take action to improve their safety online and protect their freedom of expression so that they can continue to play their part online, as well as offline, in our society.

On Amendments 94 and 304, tabled by my noble friend Lady Morgan of Cotes, I want to be unequivocal: 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. Ofcom’s codes of practice will set out how companies can comply with their duties in the Bill.

I assure noble Lords that the codes will cover protections against violence against women and girls. In accordance with the safety duties, the codes will set out how companies should tackle illegal content and activity confronting women and girls online. This includes the several crimes that we have listed as priority offences, which we know are predominantly perpetrated against women and girls. The codes will also cover how companies should tackle harmful online behaviour and content towards girls.

Companies will be required to implement systems and processes designed to prevent people encountering priority illegal content and minimise the length of time for which any such content is present. In addition, Ofcom will be required to carry out broad consultation when drafting codes of practice to harness expert opinions on how companies can address the most serious online risks, including those facing women and girls. Many of the examples that noble Lords gave in their speeches are indeed reprehensible. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, talked about rape threats and threats of violence. These, of course, are examples of priority illegal content and companies will have to remove and prevent them.

My noble friend Lady Morgan suggested that the Bill misses out the specific course of conduct that offences in this area can have. Clause 9 contains provisions to ensure that services

“mitigate and manage the risk of the service being used for the commission or facilitation of” an offence. This would capture patterns of behaviour. In addition, Schedule 7 contains several course of conduct offences, including controlling and coercive behaviour, and harassment. The codes will set out how companies must tackle these offences where this content contributes to a course of conduct that might lead to these offences.

To ensure that women’s and girls’ voices are heard in all this, the Bill will, as the right reverend Prelate noted, make it a statutory requirement for Ofcom to consult the Victims’ Commissioner and the domestic abuse commissioner about the formation of the codes of practice. As outlined, the existing illegal content, child safety and child sexual abuse and exploitation codes will already cover protections for women and girls. Creating a separate code dealing specifically with violence against women and girls would mean transposing or duplicating measures from these in a separate code.

In its recent communication to your Lordships, Ofcom stated that it will be consulting quickly on the draft illegal content and child sexual abuse and exploitation codes, and has been clear that it has already started the preparatory work for these. If Ofcom were required to create a separate code on violence against women and girls this preparatory work would need to be revised, with the inevitable consequence of slowing down the implementation of these vital protections.

An additional stand-alone code would also be duplicative and could cause problems with interpretation and uncertainty for Ofcom and providers. Linked to this, the simpler the approach to the codes, the higher the rates of compliance are likely to be. The more codes there are covering specific single duties, the more complicated it will be for providers, which will have to refer to multiple different codes, and the harder for businesses to put in place the right protections for users. Noble Lords have said repeatedly that this is a complex Bill, and this is an area where I suggest we should not make it more complex still.

As the Bill is currently drafted, Ofcom is able to draft codes in a way that addresses a range of interrelated risks affecting different groups of users, such as people affected in more than one way; a number of noble Lords dealt with that in their contributions. For example, combining the measures that companies can take to tackle illegal content targeting women and girls with the measures they can take to tackle racist abuse online could ensure a more comprehensive and effective approach that recognises the point, which a number of noble Lords made, that people with more than one protected characteristic under the Equality Act may be at compound risk of harm. If the Bill stipulated that Ofcom separate the offences that disproportionately affect women and girls from other offences in Schedule 7, this comprehensive approach to tackling violence against women and girls online could be lost.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes Conservative

Could my noble friend the Minister confirm something? I am getting rather confused by what he is saying. Is it the case that there will be just one mega code of practice to deal with every single problem, or will there be lots of different codes of practice to deal with the problems? I am sure the tech platforms will have sufficient people to be able to deal with them. My understanding is that Ofcom said that, while the Bill might not mandate a code of practice on violence against women and girls, it would in due course be happy to look at it. Is that right, or is my noble friend the Minister saying that Ofcom will never produce a code of practice on violence against women and girls?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

It is up to Ofcom to decide how to set the codes out. What I am saying is that the codes deal with specific categories of threat or problem—illegal content, child safety content, child sexual abuse and exploitation—rather than with specific audiences who are affected by these sorts of problems. There is a circularity here in some of the criticism that we are not reflecting the fact that there are compound harms to people affected in more than one way and then saying that we should have a separate code dealing with one particular group of people because of one particular characteristic. We are trying to deal with categories of harm that we know disproportionately affect women and girls but which of course could affect others, as the noble Baroness rightly noted. Amendment 304—

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for giving way. There is a bit of a problem that I would like to raise. I think the Minister is saying that there should not be a code of practice in respect of violence against women and girls. That sounds to me like there will be no code of practice in this one particular area, which seems rather harsh. It also does not tackle the issue on which I thought we were all agreed, even if we do not agree the way forward: namely, that women and girls are disproportionately affected. If it is indeed the case that the Minister feels that way, how does he suggest this is dealt with?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

There are no codes designed for Jewish people, Muslim people or people of colour, even though we know that they are disproportionately affected by some of these harms as well. The approach taken is to tackle the problems, which we know disproportionately affect all of those groups of people and many more, by focusing on the harms rather than the recipients of the harm.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes Conservative

Can I check something with my noble friend? This is where the illogicality is. The Government have mandated in the Strategic Policing Requirement that violence against women and girls is a national threat. I do not disagree with him that other groups of people will absolutely suffer abuse and online violence, but the Government themselves have said that violence against women and girls is a national threat. I understand that my noble friend has the speaking notes, the brief and everything else, so I am not sure how far we will get on this tonight, but, given the Home Office stance on it, I think that to say that this is not a specific threat would be a mistake.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

With respect, I do not think that that is a perfect comparison. The Strategic Policing Requirement is an operational policing document intended for chief constables and police and crime commissioners in the important work that they do, to make sure they have due regard for national threats as identified by the Home Secretary. It is not something designed for commercial technology companies. The approach we are taking in the Bill is to address harms that can affect all people and which we know disproportionately affect women and girls, and harms that we know disproportionately affect other groups of people as well.

We have made changes to the Bill: the consultation with the Victims’ Commissioner and the domestic abuse commissioner, the introduction of specific offences to deal with cyber-flashing and other sorts of particular harms, which we know disproportionately affect women and girls. We are taking an approach throughout the work of the Bill to reflect those harms and to deal with them. Because of that, respectfully, I do not think we need a specific code of practice for any particular group of people, however large and however disproportionately they are affected. I will say a bit more about our approach. I have said throughout, including at Second Reading, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been very clear in another place as well, that the voices of women and girls have been heard very strongly and have influenced the approach that we have taken in the Bill. I am very happy to keep talking to noble Lords about it, but I do not think that the code my noble friend sets out is the right way to go about solving this issue.

Amendment 304 seeks to adopt the Istanbul convention definition of violence against women and girls. The Government are already compliant with the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, which was ratified last year. However, we are unable to include the convention’s definition of violence against women and girls in the Bill, as it extends to legal content and activity that is not in scope of the Bill as drafted. Using that definition would therefore cause legal uncertainty for companies. It would not be appropriate for the Government to require companies to remove legal content accessed by adults who choose to access it. Instead, as noble Lords know, the Government have brought in new duties to improve services’ transparency and accountability.

Amendment 104 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, seeks to require user-to-user services to provide a higher standard of protection for women, girls and vulnerable adults than for other adults. The Bill already places duties on service providers and Ofcom to prioritise responding to content and activity that presents the highest risk of harm to users. This includes users who are particularly affected by online abuse, such as women, girls and vulnerable adults. In overseeing the framework, Ofcom must ensure that there are adequate protections for those who are most vulnerable to harm online. In doing so, Ofcom will be guided by its existing duties under the Communications Act, which requires it to have regard when performing its duties to the

“vulnerability of children and of others whose circumstances appear to OFCOM to put them in need of special protection”.

The Bill also amends Ofcom’s general duties under the Communications Act to require that Ofcom, when carrying out its functions, considers the risks that all members of the public face online, and ensures that they are adequately protected from harm. This will form part of Ofcom’s principal duty and will apply to the way that Ofcom performs all its functions, including when producing codes of practice.

In addition, providers’ illegal content and child safety risk assessment duties, as well as Ofcom’s sectoral risk assessment duties, require them to understand the risk of harm to users on their services. In doing so, they must consider the user base. This will ensure that services identify any specific risks facing women, girls or other vulnerable groups of people.

As I have mentioned, the Bill will require companies to prioritise responding to online activity that poses the greatest risk of harm, including where this is linked to vulnerability. Vulnerability is very broad. The threshold at which somebody may arguably become vulnerable is subjective, context-dependent and maybe temporary. The majority of UK adult users could be defined as vulnerable in particular circumstances. In practice, this would be very challenging for Ofcom to interpret if it were added to the safety objectives in this way. The existing approach allows greater flexibility so that companies and Ofcom can focus on the greatest threats to different groups of people at any given time. This allows the Bill to adapt to and keep pace with changing risk patterns that may affect different groups of people.

I am conscious that, for understandable reasons, the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, is not here to speak to her Amendment 171. I will touch on it briefly in her absence. It relates to platform transparency about providers’ approaches to content that promotes violence against women, girls and vulnerable groups. Her amendment raises an extremely important issue. It is essential that the Bill increase transparency about the abuse of women, girls and vulnerable people online. This is why the Bill already empowers Ofcom to request extensive information about illegal and harmful online abuse of women, girls and vulnerable groups in transparency reports. Accepting this amendment would therefore be duplicative. I hope that the noble Baroness would agree that it is not needed.

I hope that I have given some reassurance that the Bill covers the sort of violent content about which noble Lords are rightly concerned, no matter against whom it is directed. The Government recognise that many of these offences and much of the violence does disproportionately affect women and girls in the way that has been correctly pointed out. We have reflected this in the way in which the Bill and its regulatory framework are to operate. I am happy to keep discussing this matter with my noble friend. She is right that it is important, but I hope that, at this juncture, she will be content to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes Conservative 8:00, 16 May 2023

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his response, which I will come on to in a moment. This has been a fascinating debate. Yet again, it has gone to the heart of some of the issues with this Bill. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, even though I did not quite agree with everything they said. It is good that this Committee shows just how seriously it takes the issue of violence against women and girls. I particularly thank all those who are watching from outside. This issue is important to so many.

There is no time to run through all the brilliant contributions that have been made. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for her support. She made the point that, these days, for most people, there is no online/offline distinction. To answer one of the points made, we sometimes see violence or abuse that starts online and then translates into the offline world. Teachers in particular are saying that this is the sort of misogyny they are seeing in classrooms.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said, the onus should not be on women and girls to remove themselves from online spaces. I also thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Gohir, for their support. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, talked about the toxic levels of online violence. Parliament needs to say that this is not okay—which means that we will carry on with this debate.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, for her contribution. She illustrated so well why a code of practice is needed. We can obviously discuss this, but I do not think the Minister is quite right about the user reporting element. For example, we have heard various women speaking out who have had multiple rape threats. At the moment, the platforms require each one to be reported individually. They do not put them together and then work out the scale of threat against a particular user. I am afraid that this sort of threat would not breach the illegal content threshold and therefore would not be caught by the Bill, despite what the Minister has been saying.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Stowell. I would love to see basic standards—I think she called it “civility” —and a better society between men and women. One of the things that attracts me most to the code of practice is that it seeks cultural and societal changes—not just whack-a-mole with individual offences but changing the whole online culture to build a healthier and better society.

I will certainly take up the Minister’s offer of a meeting. His response was disappointing. There was no logic to it at all. He said that the voice of women and girls is heard throughout the Bill. How can this be the case when the very phrase “women and girls” is not mentioned in 262 pages? Some 100,000 people outside this Chamber disagree with his position and on the need for there to be a code of practice. I say to both Ofcom and the tech platforms that a code has been drafted. Please do not do the “Not drafted here; we’re not going to adopt it”. It is there, the work has been done and it can easily be taken on.

I would be delighted to discuss the definition in Amendment 304 with my noble friend. I will of course withdraw my amendment tonight, but we will certainly return to this on Report.

Amendment 97 withdrawn.

Amendment 98 not moved.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.45 pm.