What is illegal offline should be illegal online, too

July 5, 2022
By Taylor Bloch
July 5, 2022

In a study of more than 14,000 girls in 31 countries, Plan International found that 58% of surveyed girls have experienced harassment online. Even further, it found that girl activists face increased online harassment, particularly when speaking about feminism or gender equality, with 47% of respondents reporting being harassed for their opinions.

As a young queer woman, I’m no stranger to receiving hateful comments, unwanted lewd photos and cyberstalking. Domestic and foreign political actors are beginning to take note of this rapidly growing online violence and creating laws and programs to combat it. So, what is the U.S. Congress waiting for?

Given that internet access exists in most places around the world, violence can originate globally and cross borders at an unprecedented rate. With many major digital services companies based in the U.S., addressing online harassment is even more urgent. We have a responsibility to ensure these providers improve their safety measures; otherwise we model that it’s acceptable for other countries to ignore technology-facilitated gender-based violence, too.

With young people becoming increasingly active online and technology becoming ever prevalent in daily life, the U.S. should pass a federal law that makes violence online illegal, too. The growing laws and programming by domestic and foreign political actors to protect girls online demonstrate that this is an increasingly important frontier in politics, international development and grassroots activism alike. And it’s here to stay.

What is TFGBV?

The International Center for Research on Women defines technology-facilitated gender-based violence — TFGBV — as “violence that is motivated by the sexual or gender identity of the target or by underlying gender norms” carried out through a form of technology. This can include stalking, bullying, sexual harassment, defamation, hate speech, exploitation and gender trolling, among other forms of violence. Girls who identify as an ethnic minority, LGBTQIA+ or having a disability may also face increased online harassment because of these intersecting identities.

Who is doing it right?

Thankfully, various political actors are starting to act to protect girls online, and their efforts shouldn’t go unnoticed. For example, the U.S. Department of State recently launched the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, which will bring together countries, international organizations, civil society and the private sector to better prioritize, understand, prevent and address TFGBV. The coalition recognizes that online violence transcends borders and screen time. To truly make online spaces safer, we all need to act.

Similarly, President Biden signed a Presidential Memorandum just weeks ago to create the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse. With a focus on women, girls and LGBTQ+ individuals, the task force will “produce recommendations for the Federal government, state governments, technology platforms, schools and other public and private entities to prevent and address technology-facilitated gender-based violence, including a focus on the nexus between online misogyny and radicalization to violence.”

It is also anticipated that there will be a heightened focused on TFGBV and its impacts on girls’ political participation in the updated U.S. Interagency Global Strategy on Gender-Based Violence, which is expected to be release within the next two months. This inclusion would increase U.S. diplomatic efforts around this topic and would also signal future funding and programming on TFGBV in agencies like USAID.

U.S. state governments and select members of Congress also are taking action to curb illegal activity online. For example, Virginia and Texas recently adopted a law which permits individuals to sue someone who sent them lewd content without their consent up to $500 per instance. Senator Michael F. Bennet also introduced a federal bill proposing to create a five-person expert commission responsible for protecting digital consumers, particularly around foreign disinformation, child safety and antitrust laws.

With such focus on TFGBV around the U.S., why hasn’t the U.S. Congress brought this issue to the floor? The U.S. government wouldn’t even need to reinvent the wheel … it can look to the European Commission’s Digital Services Act.

What will the DSA do?

At its core, the DSA will transform how digital service providers, like Meta, Google, Amazon and Microsoft, function throughout the European Union. And, with proper enforcement, the DSA would also improve girls’ physical and mental safety, civic and political participation, and privacy of personal information online. Above all, it’s expected to set the global standard for the future of digital services, impacting each of us.

It moves us away from the idea that online violence exists separate from the “real world.” It will take measures to counter the spread of disinformation, reduce surveillance and ads targeting minors, and eliminate illegal goods, services and content. In the case of serious repeated breaches, the European Commission can fine companies up to 6% of their total global revenue.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen explains that the DSA “will ensure that the online environment remains a safe space, safeguarding freedom of expression and opportunities for digital businesses. It gives practical effect to the principle that what is illegal offline, should be illegal online.”

At an INGO level, Claudia Prettner, legal and policy advisor at Amnesty International Tech, describes that “the DSA moves us towards an online world that better respects our human rights by effectively putting the brakes on Big Tech’s unchecked power.”

For one, the DSA works to make girls safer from harassment and hate speech by increasing content moderation, requiring disclosure of algorithms to auditors and cracking down on the sale of illegal goods, services and content. This includes criminalizing the sale of child sexual abuse images that may be used as harassment or blackmail. These provisions will not only keep girls physically and mentally safer but will also enable their continued social and political participation in online spaces that can often be hindered by harassment.

In addition, the DSA will limit surveillance and ban ads targeted toward minors. This change is crucial because Plan International’s study found that 41% of interviewed girls and young women believe that the unauthorized sharing of content and/or demonstrating knowledge of girls’ personal information is an issue.

What should the U.S. government learn from the DSA?

The DSA challenges exploitative aspects of big tech’s business model to ensure that technology remains human-centered. It shows the world that users can have control over their online experiences when governments choose to empower them. If the U.S. cares about protecting girls and young women like me online, creating a federal law that provides continuity of protections is key.

Overall, the DSA is doing it right. Violence online won’t stop unless we choose to combat it. For young people, receiving an unsolicited lewd image carries the same trauma as being illegally flashed on the street, and it’s far more likely. When we speak about gender-based violence, whether in politics, international development or activism, it must include TFGBV.

Technology develops rapidly and touches each of our lives in many ways. The U.S. Congress must develop federal policies just as quickly to keep the internet and girls, in all their diversity, safe.