Is free speech really free? Understanding women’s online safety in the context of 2022’s free speech debates

June 2022
 by Eve Bolton

Is free speech really free? Understanding women’s online safety in the context of 2022’s free speech debates

June 2022
 By Eve Bolton

Since the birth and widespread adoption of the internet, the digital world has become increasingly entwined with the physical world, affecting how we interact in society and making it difficult to distinguish our online and physical selves. For women, this has meant understanding and protecting themselves against new dangers. For technical companies, law makers and law enforcers, it means ensuring women are protected online as well as in the physical world.

In June 2022, Ofcom’s Online Nation Report found that women are more likely than men to have encountered online content relating to negative body image/excessive dieting/eating disorders, misogynistic content, and content relating to self-harm or suicide. It also found that women feel less able than men to share their opinions, have a voice and be themselves online. As a result, the report identified a need for tech firms to do more to keep women safe online.

Campaigners are hoping to see further attention given to the issue of women’s safety in the UK’s upcoming Online Safety Bill. Currently in the committee stage of the parliamentary process, the Bill aims to improve online experiences for all by placing duties on search engines and social media companies regarding content that is illegal or harmful. According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, the Online Safety Bill also aims to safeguard freedom of expression and pluralism online, mandating platforms to proactively monitor user content. Although the platforms will not be responsible for the content itself, they will be required to create systems and processes that can reduce the likelihood of harm while protecting free speech.

There have also been calls for social media companies to change how content is curated, so that users encounter more balanced and authoritative information rather than polarised and potentially misleading content. But the line between protecting people from harmful content and ensuring the social media sphere remains a place of diverse voices and honest opinions is a tricky one to navigate, and some argue that regulation often comes at the expense of freedom of speech.

Can online safety and free speech co-exist?

Unlike in real life, where we communicate freely, the internet runs on algorithms: the information we are presented with online appears not by chance, but as the result of predictions about our online behaviour. In recent times, some have suggested that the internet has become an echo chamber for extremist views, an environment in which it is easy for people to be misinformed. For many, it’s about time the online world became less of a Wild West.

Others are uncomfortable about increasing the regulation and moderation of online content, believing that exercising more control in this area infringes the right to freedom of speech – particularly with respect to marginalised communities. Elon Musk has suggested that if his bid to take over Twitter is successful, he will reduce moderation on the platform, saying: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

Some commentators are concerned about Musk’s attitude to freedom of expression, and how it may negatively affect the online experiences of women across the web. They question whether Musk’s idea of free speech is genuinely universal, or whether it will tilt the balance in favour of harmful misogynists. Women often face abuse and trolling for sharing their views online, and reducing content moderation is likely to further exacerbate this. Put simply, free speech is not really free when it has negative consequences.

There are also concerns that the Online Safety Bill will not do enough to tackle the issue of gendered disinformation campaigns, which have targeted a range of women in public life from politicians to journalists. Such campaigns undermine and discredit women, threaten their safety and shut down their freedom of expression and ability to participate in political discussion online. Recent examples have included fake nude images of female politicians spreading like wildfire, and women being branded as liars in the media for speaking out against harassment.

The Online Safety Bill and its role in protecting women online

One of the fundamental issues that journalists, politicians, and campaigners are concerned about is how we define freedom of speech, and who has the authority to do so. Without a universally accepted definition, there are claims that the new Online Safety Bill is simply not clear enough about what freedom of speech means, whose freedom of speech is being protected, and what the limits of this protection are. Gender is not identified as a category of hate speech in the UK, which further complicates the issue of removing content and applying consequences to those instigating gendered attacks.

Many are concerned that the Bill will struggle to put an end to the gendered misinformation that numerous fall victim to, and will still allow women to be silenced online or physically endangered. And even if the Online Safety Bill does put restrictions on large social media companies, there are concerns that misogynist content may still surface on niche social media platforms, such as those that were used to whip up a storm prior to the US Capitol attacks in 2021.

It remains to be seen how the Bill will progress in the parliamentary process, and exactly what it will mean for freedom of expression and online safety. It will be interesting to see whether gendered misinformation will be explicitly named on the new Bill following further amendments, and whether the Bill will have an impact on freedom of speech and women’s experiences of the web. The new EU Digital Services Act may also offer clues on how to build a safer internet for all, especially if the UK wants to create an internet that is value and rights based.

The UK’s Online Safety Bill will be a world first if it becomes law, so it is vital that policymakers ensure it serves to protect all groups within the online community. If it proves successful, it may provide a blueprint for other governments to create their own internet safety laws. We will be watching closely as the Bill continues to make its way through the parliamentary process, and we will keep you informed on this developing issue.

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