Coventry University researchers advocate for the rights and protection of vulnerable adults in Online Safety Bill

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Credit: Efe Kurnaz

Monday 15 May 2023

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In January 2023, the government released an updated version of the Online Safety Bill (OSB), and in response a team of academics from Coventry University have been conducting research into its effectiveness in the hope of informing the public, making positive cultural change for online behaviours, and influencing future policy for the better.

The current OSB, which is being reviewed in the House of Lords, aims to protect people from harm and exploitation online. The bill has a particular focus on who is responsible in cases of sharing illegal material, reporting harmful content, disinformation and misinformation, and the duties of different parties in the protection of children online.

The research, conducted by Dr Adrienne Evans, Dr Lindsay Balfour, Dr Sarah Kate Merry, and Dr Marcus Maloney from the Centre for Postdigital Cultures, focuses on how technology can enable the abuse of women and girls, particularly through images; the necessary protections for women using digital health tools; the helps and harms of seeking mental health support online; and the relationships between boys, men and “toxic” online communities.

Digital harms and vulnerabilities shaped by emerging technology have a wide-ranging impact on who we are and how we feel about ourselves. What happens online has material consequences for how we experience and live our lives offline. This is especially true of digital and technologically mediated abuse of women and girls. Our report seeks to make an intervention in these discussions – both in the Online Safety Bill, and further afield.

Dr Adrienne Evans, Reader in Media in the Centre for Postdigital Cultures.

In early 2023, the team hosted workshops with key contacts from industry, policy, service providers, and charities to gather information and perspectives on the bill, and included representatives from Samaritans and Carnegie UK Trust. The workshops looked to identify and offer solutions to the bill’s limitations.

Following the feedback, the researchers wrote a report about the OSB, to be published on the 18th May 2023, in which they identified its strengths, including the focus it puts on tackling illegal suicide and self-harm content for children, but also tried to address gaps in the bill.

The team’s report found that:

Despite the acknowledged strengths of the OSB, the workshop participants noted that there are a number of omitted, or removed, aspects that are or may become problematic. Violence against women and girls and toxic masculinity were referenced as two of these significant omissions.

Among their other findings, the team proposed the recognition of and real-time intervention in gender-based violence. They also suggested that there needs to be greater funding for digital literacy skills and the prevention of users being targeted with harmful content by algorithms.

The research team will continue to conduct research and campaign for more effective protections for all, especially vulnerable groups, in the growing digital space we all increasingly occupy.

Find out more about the OSB and the research team’s work at their upcoming event where they will present their findings and recommendations.