The day after a report surfaced that one third of revenge porn victims in Britain drop their allegations, Sir Christopher Chope MP singlehandedly blocked a bill aimed at protecting victims of upskirting. Regardless of his intentions, the act was taken as a message to women and girls across the UK: your online safety is not a priority. With cyber-enabled crimes like upskirting, revenge porn and cyberstalking disproportionately affecting women, it’s time to ask whether male legislators and the heavily male-dominated tech industry are sufficiently committed to finding solutions to battles that can and should have female leaders on the frontlines.
With all of its promise to liberate society from traditional power structures, the internet has done little to put women on equal ground. It was largely created and is now regulated by men, and the resulting design flaws have predictably let just under half of the world’s population fall through the cracks. Men are significantly less likely to report being sexually harassed or stalked online, and the number of revenge porn incidents in the UK has seen a dramatic increase in the past three years. When 1 in 5 women in the UK report experiencing online abuse or harassment, it’s clear that a solution is needed. Lifting up women in tech and electing female legislators is vital to putting the issues women face online front and centre and ensuring future regulation and legislation is effective for all internet users.
Identifying exactly where big tech and government are lacking female-driven innovation is important. A good start is within cybersecurity, where it is estimated that women make up just 20% of the workforce. The field is key to the prevention of online crime, and pre-emptively stopping personal data from leaking is more effective than the difficult process of tracking down and prosecuting criminals. In an industry that desperately needs to be one step ahead of the game, getting more women to train for work in the cybersecurity field should be encouraged. Track records to date suggest that an industry where four out of five workers are men does not have the multi-dimensional repertoire needed to create solutions to problems they may not themselves face.
If we want more women at the table (or bean bags) in big tech, we need to make sure they have a voice in parliament. It’s no secret that female legislators are more likely to introduce legislation that specifically benefits women; across the world, they are sponsoring bills encouraging gender parity in the workplace. The problem is, we don’t have enough of them. Only 32% of MPs are female, and for some parties this number is significantly lower. In order to get more girls in tech and keep them there, we need fierce advocates in government. Electing more female politicians at every level of government to aid this effort is possible. It requires greater support networks and increased fundraising opportunities, as well as a commitment from male legislators to call out inequalities and push for gender equality. Policymakers are aware that the gender gap in the tech industry is an economic problem; funding programs that are aimed at boosting the number of women in computer science is a responsibility that requires the leadership of elected officials from the local to the national level.
Without advocates in government drafting legislation that actively works to protect victims, cyber-enabled crimes like revenge porn are hard to prosecute. A number of high-profile female lawyers have taken on revenge porn cases in the last several years, helping to elevate the issue. Although their voices may have been loud enough to protect YouTube stars and celebrities, many victims still face complex legal challenges. Cyberstalking and revenge porn laws exist in the UK, but Attorney Alexandra Whiston-Dew at Mishcon de Reya has highlighted the difficulty of applying the current legislation, which requires proof that the perpetrator intended to cause distress. Victims cite lack of anonymity as a key reason for dropping revenge porn charges, which means current legislation is failing women before they enter the courtroom. Content shared in revenge porn and upskirting cases is deeply personal, and coming forward publicly is often too high of a price to pay for victims. Change the law to protect victims’ rights to privacy by guaranteeing anonymity and you make it easier to prosecute offenders. It’s that simple.
Developments in computer vision and deep learning have made crimes like revenge porn easier to commit; you don’t have to gain access to private files in order to create and spread abusive content. Since these advancements are occurring at a faster rate than government’s legislative processes, lawmakers and the tech industry need to work together to find smart, policy-driven solutions — and part of that is bringing more women to the decision-making table. Since establishing CASM, we have worked to analyse changes in technology, spot new threats and risks, and call them out with rigorous, evidence-based research. It’s vital that we stay ahead of the curve and aim, where possible, to prevent rather than passively react to these changes.
Electing more women and putting them in positions of power in the workplace will give both government and the tech industry the advantage needed to stay ahead of new trends in cyber-enabled crime. It’s time to create a space where victims of these crimes feel comfortable enough to come forward and receive justice.