It’s 6am. You roll over and start the daily routine—touch the phone on, check the weather, scan emails and messages. Get up, shower, dress, have breakfast. Hustle the kids through their morning while arranging the day with your partner and checking the news online. Head out the door for drop offs on the way to work. Power through the to do list, checking Facebook, Twitter, news sites, messages and emails during the day. Look at recipes online for dinner ideas. Bask in a little Pinterest as you wind down for the day while noting what the kids are looking at online. Head to bed with a little Netflix on the tablet, and fall asleep—with two devices nearby.
This scenario is a common one. In Australia, a staggering 86% of households have home internet access (ABS, 2017). There’s much that appeals: technology has allowed us to expand our horizons in ways we could not have imagined only a decade ago. We now research, learn, read, watch, plan, play, share and communicate with friends, family, businesses and strangers online using a range of devices from smartphones to tablets, laptops, computers and gaming handsets. It’s a smorgasbord of entertainment, connection and experiences. There is a spectrum of benefits, from small-scale improvements in access and connection, all the way to opening up to previously unforeseen personal growth or overwhelming business success. The list is long and varied.
But there is a flipside.
For all the power that technologies have granted us, and the promise of improvements to our lives, there are also a range of shortcomings. And while negative experiences online are not solely the domain of women, females are unfairly represented as victims of cyber abuse and targets of appalling online behaviour.
The very significant issues that women face online, and the role the eSafety Office has in Australia to administer regulation, offer education and provide support were the focus of a speech I was proud to give at the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York which marked International Women’s Day. The CSW is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.
For those who would like to read it, my complete speech follows. Please note that this is a long read.
Good morning. As Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, I am delighted to be here.
I first want to thank the Minister for Women, Kelly O’Dwyer. Thank you, Minister, not only for your introduction, but for your support for women, girls and the Office of the eSafety Commissioner. I know you are as committed to making the world a better and more equal place for women and girls as I am.
I am proud to lead the Office of the eSafety Commissioner. Established in 2015, we are the only government agency in the world solely dedicated to online safety. My office leads, coordinates and advises on online safety issues to ensure all Australians have safe, positive and empowering experiences online.
We have three reporting schemes that operate as a singular Investigative Division. We operate a complaints service for Australian children who experience serious cyberbullying. We have an image-based abuse scheme for all Australians whose intimate image or video has been shared or threatened to be shared without their consent. We also administer the Online Content Scheme, which investigates complaints about offensive and illegal online content.
We also have a number of program-based initiatives, including initiatives targeted at women, children, parents, carers, teachers and older Australians.
Crucially, we undertake an extensive research program to ensure our programs and resources are evidence based. This equips us with the insights and knowledge we need to understand online safety issues and design, implement and evaluate best possible solutions.
Women and abuse
Not surprisingly, our research and regulatory experience shows that women are disproportionate targets of cyber abuse.
More than two-thirds of our complaints about cyber abuse and image-based abuse involve women. Women are more likely to experience abuse that is personal, sexualised and gender-based.
Rooted in misogyny and reflecting society’s broader gender inequality, often the abuse targeted at women is because they are women.
I don’t shy away from labelling the issue for what it is: abuse.
Nor do I shy away from labelling its key driver: gender inequality.
There is a strong nexus between the inequality, discrimination and disrespect underpinning abuse online and offline. In other words, social media can serve to surface the reality – and frankly, the underbelly — of the human condition, including sexism, racism and homophobia.
I want to be clear that this isn’t a women’s issue: it is a societal issue.
We all have a responsibility for addressing inequality and empowering women — online and offline.
From our research and programs, we know that while women are a key target, online abuse is also intersectional. Women also experience abuse on grounds including sexual orientation, race, religion, disability and age.
I am, however, ultimately a technology optimist. I believe that the benefits of the internet outweigh the risks and challenges.
Social media can be a powerful tool for women to connect, engage, learn and grow. It can provide a platform for women who for a range of intersectional factors are too often silenced in public debate.
This is why when the Office considers intersectionality, we take an inclusive and strengths-based approach, in which an individual’s diversity, strengths and resilience are understood as important factors that can protect them from online harms.
The Office has a number of women’s programs and initiatives. They are all aimed at empowering women to take back control.
Let me begin with eSafety Women. eSafety Women was established in 2016 with funding from the Australian Government’s ‘Women’s Safety Package to Stop the Violence’.
We know through research with workers who support women experiencing domestic or family violence that 98% of cases involve some form of online abuse, surveillance or stalking.
Through eSafety Women, we provide advice and assistance to those impacted by technology-facilitated abuse. We also provide face to face and online training for domestic and family violence workers.
In February this year, we released our ground-breaking research into the experiences of women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities of technology-facilitated abuse. We found that women from CALD communities face multiple and particular barriers in seeking support. This includes language barriers, limited digital literacy and cultural biases and misunderstandings from support services.
To ensure our eSafety Women resources can help women in these communities, we have developed a series of guides covering critical online safety issues and made them available in 12 community languages. These resources are the first of their kind in Australia. And while they are Australian focused, they are also universal, as women all over the world experience technology-facilitated abuse. I strongly encourage you to read them.
The Australian Government recently announced new funding under the Women’s Safety Package. We’ll be able to undertake new initiatives, including scoping the availability of services to help women identify whether their devices have been compromised by malicious software or covertly installed hardware.
And only last week, the Australian Government announced new funding under the Fourth Action Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children to enable us to develop specific programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women with an intellectual disability or communication difficulty.
Now to a teaser: I’m going to show you a short version of our award-nominated eSafety Women, ‘Natalie’, at the end of my speech.
The Office also plays a crucial role in the fight against image-based abuse: that is, the non-consensual sharing or threat to share intimate images or videos.
Our research indicates that while one in 10 adult Australians have been a victim of image-based abuse, women are twice as likely to be victims compared with men.
In a world-first government-led initiative, we were funded by the Australian government under the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children to deliver a national image-based abuse portal. Launched in October 2017, the portal provides a range of guidance, tips and pathways for support.
The Australian Government committed a further $4 million over four years in the 2018-2019 Budget to implement and administer the civil penalty scheme. This commenced in September 2018 and give us a range of enforcement powers.
Since the launch of the portal in October 2017, we have received over 165,000 visits to the site itself and investigated over 700 reports of image-based abuse. Despite the material nearly always being hosted overseas, we have successfully removed images reported to us in over 80% of cases where removal was requested.
But success isn’t just measured by reporting and enforcement measures. Cultural change is a key marker too. It was one of my first priorities as Commissioner to change the lexicon around image-based abuse. I wanted to shift from the term ‘revenge porn’, an inherently victim blaming term, to ‘image-based abuse’, which reinforces the nature of the act: abuse. I am proud to have played a part in image-based abuse now being commonly used both in Australia and internationally.
Adult and child abuse
Operating a singular Investigative Division allows us to see the similarities and differences between the abuse women and girls receive online.
One of the fundamental differences between youth-based cyberbullying and adult cyber abuse is that cyberbullying tends to be peer to peer and an extension of conflict happening within the school yard. In contrast, adult cyber abuse is often perpetrated by strangers. Regrettably, one of the similarities is that girls, like women, are overrepresented, with 66% of our cyberbullying reports coming from girls.
I want to talk a little bit more about girls, as they are such an important group.
We know that girls tend to engage in more covert forms of abuse, such as by promoting shame or by exclusion. Girls are also more likely to feel pressure to engage in certain forms of cyber risks, such as sharing intimate images, and to avoid the internet out of fear of the potential dangers.
Girls need, and deserve, to access the immense benefits of the internet.
One of our key mechanisms to ensure this is a child’s educational journey. I want to see comprehensive and nationally coordinated respectful relationships and online safety education embedded in the Australian Curriculum and consistently delivered throughout a child’s educational journey.
This should be based on the ‘Four Rs of Online Safety’ — respect, resilience, responsibility and reasoning. This will ensure our girls develop into strong and empowered women.
Developing strong and empowered women brings me to my office’s newest women’s initiative, Women Influencing Tech Spaces, or WITS, which was launched in May 2018. WITS is an initiative to both protect and promote women’s voices. It recognises that women in leadership positions and with public personas experience shockingly high levels of abuse.
I have a clear objective with WITS: I want to give women the psychological armour to counteract cyber abuse and interact online with impact, confidence and resilience.
We’ve already held events with industry leaders and managers, government officials, athletes and female journalists. They were equipped with resilience tips and online safety information and encouraged to spread the online safety message. The ‘upstander’ message is at the core of WITS, in that it reiterates that women can, together, express solidarity and build strength by supporting each other online.
Safety by Design
We also need to consider technological frameworks and approaches to reduce cyber abuse by building safety protections into online platforms at the get go, rather than retrofitting fixes after the damage has been done.
This is not unlike road safety, but the vehicle here is the online platform: and just as we expect cars to have seat belts, air bags and brakes that work, those same fundamental safety protections should be embedded into the design, development and deployment of online products and services. To that end, my Office is currently undertaking a consultation process on draft Safety by Design principles with more than 30 companies and organisations. We hope that we can bring the sector along to ensure Safety by Design becomes a core tenet in securing a more ethical, value-centred and human-centred approach to the development of technologies.
Having the right processes in place to harness the benefits of technology brings me to the issue of anonymity. Anonymity can facilitate negative online behaviours, as it allows individuals to freely exhibit inappropriate behaviour and attitudes without the normal social repercussions.
From reports made to us, and from the feedback we receive from frontline workers we train through eSafetyWomen, we know that current and former partners frequently use fake or impersonator accounts to abuse a woman. This is often done to reinforce control or for reputational damage.
At the same time, anonymity can also be used to help shield and protect a woman’s identity, which can provide her physical safety or protect her from online abuse. It can also allow some women a voice who would otherwise be silenced.
The Office also allows complaints about image-based abuse or cyber abuse to be made using a pseudonym. This can help restore a sense of agency and control to the victim.
Anonymity is something we will continue to closely watch and consider how we can maintain the benefits a certain degree of anonymity might provide, while minimising the very challenging negatives.
But now, to the video I promised you earlier. Here is a short version of our award-nominated eSafety Women ‘Natalie’ video.
In closing, I’d like to thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to join us at this event. I’m extremely proud of my office and our women’s programs.
I believe this is our opportunity, at both a national and international level, to build an online world where women and girls are respected and empowered.
Together, we can make a better online world for women, girls and therefore everyone.