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As use of digital platforms surges, we'll need stronger global efforts to protect human rights online

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As millions of people are moving work and social interactions online to protect themselves from COVID-19, existing online safety measures may not be enough to deal with a surge in harassment and abuse.

Concerns about rising levels of scamming and harassment prompted online safety organisation NetSafeto issue a warning to users to maintain vigilance. This abuse has included threats of violence and explicit racism and xenophobia.

Online abuse breaches several human rights. We argue that governments have obligations under international law and should establish a digital human rights charter, with special protections built in for women and children.

Read more: 'Zoombombers' want to troll your online meetings. Here's how to stop them

Cyber violence against women

Online platforms replicate culture with all its offline risks and inequalities.

Offline, discrimination against women permeates all aspects of our society, including the family, education, the workplace, the legal system and government. Discrimination manifests in different ways, including violence against women.

These unequal gender dynamics repeat online, resulting in women being subjected to sexist, misogynistic and violent content. In 2018, a UN women’s human rights expert recognised cyber violence as a specific form of violence against women.

In a 2017 Amnesty International survey, nearly a quarter (23%) of women surveyed across eight developed countries said they had experienced online abuse or harassment more than once. Of those women, 41% felt their physical safety was threatened on at least one occasion.

In New Zealand, a third of women reported being victims of online harassment. Of those who experienced abuse online:

  • 75% had trouble sleeping well
  • 49% felt their personal safety was at risk
  • 32% felt the safety of their families was at risk
  • 72% were less able to focus on everyday tasks
  • 70% experienced lower self-esteem or loss of self-confidence
  • two-thirds felt a sense of powerlessness.

Almost half (49%) reduced their use of social media or left platforms altogether.

The UN’s Human Rights Council identified widespread online violence against women as a significant reason for the global digital divide between men and women.

Online violence against women by (mostly) men is especially persistent on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It includes online harassment, cyberstalking, “doxing” (where private information is shared by others online) and revenge pornography.

Read more: Meet ‘Sara’, ‘Sharon’ and 'Mel': why people spreading coronavirus anxiety on Twitter might actually be bots

Obligations of governments and online platforms

Cyber violence breaches international human rights laws, including the right to freedom of expression (fewer women are likely to share their opinions or thoughts online), the right to be free from discrimination and violence, the right to information about health (including potentially life-saving updates about COVID-19) and the right to privacy.

International human rights law applies both offline and online.

Social media platforms have created community standards to protect users’ human rights, but they may not be evolving fast enough during disruptive times such as we are experiencing now. The massive increase in use is likely to amplify the dark side of social media.

Governments around the world have been slow to use their legislative powers to regulate online platforms. The live streaming of the Christchurch mosque attacks on March 15 2019 highlighted the platforms’ failure to control the spread of hateful content.

An international agreement to eliminate violent extremist content online has been difficult to achieve.

Read more: Christchurch's legacy of fighting violent extremism online must go further – deep into the dark web

Protecting rights and lives online

While platforms remain global with “one size fits all” community standards, governments have different responses to restricting individual freedom of expression.

Governments should consider establishing an international charter on digital human rights, which all social media platforms could adopt. Such a charter would enable a coherent and consistent response to cyber violence, in a world that is now almost exclusively online.

There are some practical steps we can all take. These steps include reporting online violations, blocking people or groups, and closely monitoring connections.

If you are experiencing serious online bullying, harassment, revenge porn or other forms of abuse and intimidation, contact police who may take action under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015.


The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Authors: Cassandra Mudgway, Senior Lecturer in Law, Auckland University of Technology

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