Help for Australian women online

March 8 is International Women’s Day. 

Each year, this global event provides a reminder to us all to acknowledge the work that has been done, and what’s still to be achieved, as we advance toward a gender equal world. 

This is an essential journey — one we need to pursue together, with openness and commitment in order to create the future that we want our children to enjoy. 

Women and abuse

As Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, I see the breadth of inequality as it plays out online. 

eSafety’s research, and our regulatory experience, show that women are disproportionate targets of cyber abuse. More than two-thirds of our complaints about cyber abuse, for example, involve women. Women are also 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 as gender inequality. 

Crucially, eSafety undertakes extensive research 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 to design, implement and evaluate best possible solutions. 

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. And 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 are even more likely to receive targeted, sexualised abuse if they are Aboriginal, identify as LGBTQIA+ or come from diverse ethnic or religious backgrounds. 

eSafety’s most recent research into online hate showed that, in Australia, gender is one of the top three reasons that people are targeted.  

Tech positive online support 

While I recognise the many issues, I am, ultimately, a technology optimist. I believe that the benefits of the internet outweigh the risks and challenges.

I see that social media can be a powerful tool for women to connect, engage, learn and grow. It can provide a platform for women who, due to a range of intersectional factors, are too often silenced in public debate.

This is why, when eSafety considers intersectionality, we take an inclusive and strengths-based approach, in which an individual’s diversity and resilience are understood as important factors that can protect them from online harms.

eSafety has a number of women’s programs and initiatives, outlined below, all aimed at empowering women to take back control. We also have three reporting schemes that operate as a singular Investigative Division: 

  1. a complaints service for Australian children who experience serious cyberbullying
  2. an image-based abuse scheme for all Australians whose intimate image or video has been shared or threatened to be shared without their consent
  3. the Online Content Scheme, which investigates complaints about illegal and harmful online content.

 

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. The face-to-face program has reached almost 11,000 participants and more than 2,300 have signed up for our online training option.

Our research tells us that there is increased risk of technology-facilitated abuse for specific groups of women, including those living with a disability, women from culturally and linguistically diverse communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island women.

In February 2019, for example, we released ground-breaking research into the technology-facilitated abuse experienced by women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. We found that women from CALD communities face multiple and particular barriers in seeking support. These include language barriers, limited digital literacy and cultural biases and misunderstandings from support services.

To ensure our eSafety Women resources can help in these communities, we developed a series of guides covering critical online safety issues and made them available in 12 languages. These resources are the first of their kind in Australia — and while they are Australian focused, the advice is universal to women experiencing technology-facilitated abuse all over the world.

In October 2019, eSafety also released research into the online safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women from urban communities. This found that the impacts of technology-facilitated abuse can be personally devastating. It highlighted that there is great fear of shaming and family retribution and a risk of being socially isolated from kinship networks, and that Aboriginal women face considerable barriers to seeking help and support.

With additional funding under the Women’s Safety Package we are now developing specialist online resources to help Aboriginal Elders support their communities to manage social media and its potential to cause conflict, and to raise awareness of family violence and technology-facilitated abuse.

In addition to this work, we are conducting a scoping study exploring issues relating to children impacted by technology-facilitated abuse in domestic and family violence situations. 

We are also scoping specialist technology support to help frontline workers and their clients determine whether devices have been compromised.

Further Australian Government funding under the Fourth Action Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, announced in 2019, is enabling eSafety to develop specific programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women with an intellectual disability or communication difficulty. This ground-breaking work is underway.

Image-based abuse

eSafety also plays a crucial role in tackling image-based abuse: that is, the non-consensual sharing or threat to share intimate photos or videos.

Our research indicates that one in 10 adult Australians have had their intimate image shared without their consent, with women aged 18-24 twice as likely to have had this happen to them.

In a world-first government-led initiative, eSafety started helping victims of image-based abuse in October 2017 and since September 2018 we have administered a civil penalties scheme. Under this scheme eSafety can issue enforceable removal notices and hold perpetrators of image-based abuse to account.

Since October 2017, we have received over 2,400 reports of image-based abuse. Despite the material nearly always being hosted overseas, we have successfully removed images reported to us in over 90% 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 — 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 the term now being commonly used both in Australia and internationally. 

Adult and child abuse 

Operating a singular Investigative Division allows us at eSafety 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 65% of our cyberbullying reports coming from girls. 

Girls 

I want to clarify a little bit more about girls, as they are such an important group. 

We know that girls online tend to engage in more covert forms of abuse, such as promoting shame or excluding others. Girls are also more likely to feel pressure to engage in certain forms of online 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 goals is to see that Australian children have an online educational journey, where comprehensive, nationally coordinated respectful relationships and online safety education programs are embedded in the Australian Curriculum. And that these are consistently delivered throughout a child’s schooling life.

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. 

Safety by Design 

To truly seek equality means we need to consider a range of options to reduce the cyber abuse we see online. One way to do so is 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. 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, eSafety is working with industry to ensure that Safety by Design — building in safety protections at the early stages of product or service development — becomes a core tenet.

Our world beyond

As we work together toward a world of true gender equality, I want to stress that this is our opportunity, at both a national and international level, to build a world where women and girls are respected and empowered.

I’m extremely proud of eSafety and the programs we provide for Australian women, and women of the future. I truly believe that together we can make a better online world which benefits not just women, but each and every one of us.

This blogpost is based on a speech by Julie Inman Grant to the Commission on the Status of Women in 2019.