Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM II)
Girl, online: With one in ten women estimated to have already experienced a form of cyber violence in their lifetime, and the recent leaking of thousands of indecent images of non-consenting women and girls in Ireland, how can the EU ensure that its citizens are safe from cyber sexual harassment given the trend of digitalisation in recent months?Chairperson: Hannah Rakers (NL)
In November 2020 in Ireland, thousands of intimate photos of women were leaked and shared on the internet. All of the 140000 photos were shared without consent, some also taken without the women’s knowledge, and there were even a number of photos depicting underage girls. Following the giant leak, a bill was passed outlawing the so-called ‘revenge porn’, making Ireland the fifth European country, after Germany, the UK, Malta and France, to adopt legislation specifically targeting the non-consensual distribution of private images. Most other countries depend on more general privacy legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
With a more than 50 percent internet use increase due to the Covid pandemic, women have also increasingly been faced with cyber violence. This has multiple consequences, such as women restricting their online access to avoid forms of cyber harassment. This leads to women excluding themselves from the wide array of essential services and online opportunities offered by the pandemic. It may also lead to censorship, as women feel the need to voice their opinions increasingly online, but are often attacked or discriminated against. As online access is progressively important for social and economical wellbeing, and even more so due to the pandemic, these progressions are worrying to say the least. There are many forms ofcyber violence, all of which tend to disproportionately target women and girls. Most prominent is non-consensual pornography, where intimate images and videos are distributed and often taken without the victim’s consent or even knowledge, The most common form of non-consensual pronography is revenge porn, where an ex-partner distributes intimate images or videos, aiming to humiliate the victim as a revenge for ending the relationship. A newer form of cyber violence is Zoombombing: unwanted, disruptive intrusion by trolls of a video-call, sometimes taking the form of unsolicited sexual footage. All of these fall under the umbrella term of cyber harassment, which can be summarised as sexually explicit or threatening messages, unwanted advances through social media or chat rooms, or other forms of communication that make a victim feel violated. When this harrassment is extra severe, it can be classified as cyber stalking, where repeated incidents undermine the victim’s sense of safety, by means of email, text messages or other online platforms.
Due to big gaps in research, it is unclear how many people are victims of cyber violence. There is a severe lack of representative surveys, both domestically and internationally. In 2014, the European Agency for Human Rights (FRA) did conduct research on violence against women, which included questions on cyber violence. Unfortunately, as it was the first to collect data on cyber VAWG and internet use has changed drastically since, that data is no longer representative.
Experts have warned against the tendency to classify cyber VAWG as a phenomenon that exists separately from offline, ‘real world’ violence. Instead, it should be seen as a continuum of offline violence, as it largely follows the same patterns. In most of the cyberstalking cases, the perpetrator first encountered the victim in a physical situation and revenge porn is a distinctive form of cyber violence almost exclusively committed by ex-partners.
There is a persistence of victim blaming attitudes, failing to accurately address victim’s experiences and concerns. Victims of cyber violence are often treated with ignorance and indifference, leading to many of them not being aware that their experience of cyberstalking and -harassment are punishable crimes. There is a lack ofmeasures targeting cyber VAWG, both nationally and internationally, with big differences between countries in legislation and enforcement. This stems from both a lack of specific legislation and inadequate police response to the issue. With the absence of a uniform approach by the EU, Member States are not incentivised to adopt more effective measures and international enforcement is near impossible.
Women with multiple identities (i.e. LBTQI community, ethnic minority, indigenous) are targeted more often than any other social group, facing discrimination and hate speech. The increased role of the online environment could pose an opportunity to connect globally, but also threatens these women’s political voice, as they feel intimidated by online threats.
European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE): a body initiated by the European Union, specifically focussed on gender equality. With their work, they deliver expertise to EU decision making bodies, supporting better-informed policies.
End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW): a UK-based policy and campaigns organisation, aiming to influence decision-making and public attitudes towards violence against women and girls.
Measures in place
In 2016, theGeneral Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was introduced by the EU, providing a more extensive safeguard for the privacy and security of data. It offers protection for the data of all natural persons but has no specific clauses on for instance intimate footage.
As mentioned, there are various countries that have adopted more effective national legislation in regards to cyber VAWG, such as the UK, France, Germany, Malta, and very recently, Ireland. These are for instance the criminalisation of revenge porn, and stricter measures safeguarding intimate data.
Some countries have implemented national projects focussing on cyber VAWG. The Netherlands established the SafetyNed, which helps victims of cyber violence as a continuance of domestic violence, by providing them with tools to have a safer online experience. Similar projects have been launched in other European countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany.
CYBERSAFE is a project funded by the EU which provides online tools addressing cyber VAWG. This is mostly focussed on the younger generation (13 to 16 years old) and aimed at the classroom setting. Their goal is to promote ‘healthy relationships and gender equality online’ by raising awareness and stimulating responsible online behaviour.
Further consideration questions
- In what ways has the Covid pandemic possibly influenced cyber violence?
- How can the EU take a more uniform approach towards cyber violence?
- How can Member States ensure online activities are safe and secure, especially in this time of doing most things remotely?
Links for further research
- Cyber violence and hate speech online against women, a publication by the European Parliament done on behalf of the FEMM committee. It’s a large report, but just skimming through it and focussing on e.g. good practices will help in proposing solutions.
- Cyber violence against women and girls, a report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), aiming to identify and analyse existing research and the availablity of data on cyber VAWG.
The European Youth Parliament,
- Noting with regret that many victims of cyber VAWG do not consider themselves victims or can be too intimidated to report their abuser,
- Remembering that online anonymity can make it difficult to prosecute abusers,
- Concerned that victims of cyber violence are unaware of the legal action they can take against their perpetrators,
- Alarmed that the distribution of private images without consent is criminalised only in five European countries,
- Bearing in mind that victims of cyber violence must rely on general privacy legislation such as GDPR which does not make any reference to the non-consensual distribution of private images,
- Noting the lack of cohesive and uniform legislative approach at European level regarding measures on cyber VAWG,
- Observing that the research on cyber violence incidents, victims affected and distribution across the EU is slow, incomplete and unrepresentative for the current year,
- Fully alarmed by the public’s stigma against the victims of “revenge porn” and focus on blame-shifting,
- Deeply concerned that cyber VAWG affects girls’ and women’s social and economic wellbeing as they decide not to take full advantage of online opportunities or express their opinion,
- Noting that internet usage increased with 50% in pandemic times, also increasing the risk of cyber VAWG,
- Taking into account the different legal systems and socio-cultural traditions of EU Members States;