Online Harassment: Breaking cyber violence

More than ever, Europe needs a legal definition for online harassment and other forms of cyber bullying, urges Maria Walsh.
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By Maria Walsh

Maria Walsh (IE, EPP) is a member of Parliament’s Culture and Education committee

16 Jun 2021

Online harassment, cyberstalking, doxing, image-based sexual assault - these are terms that are becoming normalised for people across the European Union, particularly women.

It has become commonplace for women to relate personal experiences of cyberviolence. The clear and strikingly gendered aspect of cyberviolence must be recognised legislatively as a matter of urgency.

In Ireland last year, we had a monumental wake-up call to the impact of gender-based violence, when links to almost half a million WhatsApp chats, including sensitive images of women and girls, were found to be accessible to the general public through Google.

“As an MEP … I can attest to the ferocity and vulgarity of this daily abuse. However, it is not just women in public positions that have experienced this type of abuse, it is happening to women in every facet of society”

The fact that so many people had private chats - including images - exposed in such a public way, showed how we urgently need to review why something that would be a crime offline is not treated as one online.

Research has emerged which illustrates the significant increase of online abuse experienced by women in the public eye. As an MEP, a first-time female candidate, I can attest to the ferocity and vulgarity of this daily abuse. However, it is not just women in public positions that have experienced this type of abuse, it is happening to women in every facet of society.

A dire lack of data on instances of cyber violence persists across the EU. The absence of a coherent EU-level definition creates a domino effect; without a legal definition, law enforcement bodies are less able to take action; without law enforcement support, victims feel there is no incentive to report and if they don’t report, then there is less data available.

We will not know the true scope of this issue without a clear EU-level legal definition. The vicious online cycle continues.

A positive step is underway to review the various ways that our EU institutions can progress and tackle this issue. I am currently working on the file “Combating Gender-Based Violence: Cyber Violence through the LIBE Committee”.

As part of my work, I recently held a constructive and informative roundtable on cyberviolence with various stakeholders in Ireland, to gain insights from the ground.

The overwhelming message from the groups and organisations represented was that gender-based cyberviolence is prevalent in almost every aspect of our society.

We heard how difficult it can be to separate incidents of gender-based cyberviolence from real-world violence and how this causes women to withdraw from online and offline civil society spaces.

We discussed in detail the mental health issues experienced by victims and the need for improved consultation services to provide them with appropriate legal advice. This roundtable reiterated that the pandemic has only compounded and heightened the negative experiences women and girls have with cyberviolence.

Although these issues are new in the Parliament’s work, online bullying and harassment are disturbingly ordinary experiences for younger women and girls. They are growing up with it. It is expected. With the prevalence of social media, online threats to women and girls can have extremely detrimental effects - particularly to their mental health.

There is an overwhelming need from groups and stakeholders involved with young people across the EU to address cyberviolence now if we are serious about protecting our future generations.

“We will not know the true scope of this issue without a clear EU-level legal definition. The vicious online cycle continues”

In Ireland, we made huge steps forward at the end of 2020 with the introduction of CoCo’s law, which specifically encompassed online harassment, and through developments regarding online hate speech legislation. Yet gaps remain.

Education involving online safety, digital skills and consent for all genders must be considered an essential component. We must educate our young people about their behaviour online and how it is a direct reflection of their real-life behaviour; it does not exist in a vacuum.

Because gender-based cyberviolence has become such an issue, national legislation is moving faster than that at EU level. We must therefore take action as EU policymakers.

With some countries blocking EU accession to the Istanbul Convention, we still have a significant amount of work to do to ensure that these gender-based crimes are given the full attention they deserve under the law.

The European Union needs to recognise all the factors when addressing the issue of cyber violence. We need to recognise the prevalence of gender-based cyber violence and the impact that is having on women of all ages.

We cannot do that fully without a legal definition for Member States and an opportunity for prosecutions for online violence. This is work that our citizens are crying out for, not eventually, but right now.

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