CyberSmart Women: Legal options for dealing with online harassment

Caitlin McGrane is the Project Lead—Enhancing Online Safety for Women at Gender Equity Victoria. Here, she tells us about CyberSmart Women, a guide commissioned by the Victorian Women’s Trust and produced by Gender Equity Victoria to inform women of their legal options in response to online harassment.

Register to hear Caitlin speak at the webinar launch of CyberSmart Women on July 22 now.

The online harassment of women and girls is a serious global, social problem. Recent research from Plan International showed that 59% of 14,000 respondents from 22 countries had experienced online harassment. In a similar report released in 2020, UNESCO found that 73% of journalists surveyed had experienced online harassment in relation to their work, with 20% reporting offline violence in response to online threats. Even Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet we know and (sometimes) love, said last year on the 31st anniversary of the creation of the internet “the web is not working for women and girls.”

It can feel like an overwhelming problem, but there are plenty of organisations who have made it their mission to address the online harassment of women. I’ve been working at Gender Equity Victoria (GEN VIC) for three years on a range of projects designed to mitigate and prevent online harassment. Before that, I wrote my minor thesis on the impacts of witnessing online harassment.

In 2019, GEN VIC launched the Active Online Bystander Project with a video and a toolkit showing suggestions for how people could intervene in instances where they witnessed online harassment. We followed this up with another video that addressed young men and boys and showed how witnessing online violence affects them too. We then commissioned a report “Don’t Read the Comments” that documented the impacts of online harassment on women journalists in Australia and made suggestions for how to address the issue from an OH&S perspective. All this work has shown the pervasiveness and insidiousness of the problem of online harassment, and how online gendered violence reflects broader attitudes in society that marginalise women and girls. 

Throughout our work, we have noticed during consultations and research that often women were told to rely on police to intervene, but the police could be unresponsive and unhelpful. The women we spoke to also expressed uncertainty about what their legal options were, outside of a criminal investigation. 

During the AFL season in 2020, Richmond player Dylan Grimes experienced horrific and terrifying online harassment targeting both him and his family. Victoria Police acted swiftly—discovering, arresting and charging the perpetrators within 48 hours. This incident demonstrated the police had the knowledge, ability and powers to intervene and address online harassment when it occurred to high-profile white men. Which begged the question—why wasn’t the law being successfully deployed in cases where women were harassed?

The Victorian Women’s Trust also felt confused about why women had difficulty receiving the appropriate assistance from the police and wanted to help us inform Victorian women about their legal options when they faced online harassment. They commissioned GEN VIC to develop a guide for women who need information on their legal options when they have been harassed online.

CyberSmart Women is the result of many months of consultation, feedback and research. We have collaborated with experts at legal firms Maurice Blackburn and Doogue and George to devise a step-by-step guide for what legal steps women can take when they face online abuse and harassment. We have also consulted with Victoria Police to make sure our information was accurate about what women could expect from their officers, and have provided input on Victoria Police’s internal communications to help ensure officers are aware of legal options when women report harassment. We are looking forward to continuing our advocacy work by reporting to Victoria Police any instances where officers do not take appropriate action to assist women. 

We, like the researchers at Plan International, UNESCO and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, feel that more needs to be done to address and prevent the online harassment of women and girls. CyberSmart Women is a small step on the journey to creating social change.

You can download the CyberSmart Women guide on the GEN VIC website here. You can also use the form on our website to provide anonymous feedback to us if you haven’t received a good response from police. Any responses will be de-identified and you can leave your email if you’re open to us getting in touch about your submission.

Caitlin McGrane is a feminist researcher and activist. Her doctoral research investigates the gendered uses, practices and impacts of smartphones. She is the Project Lead on Gender Equity Victoria’s (GEN VIC) suite of projects ‘Enhancing Online Safety for Women’ advocating for better support and conditions for women living and working online.

Register to hear Caitlin speak at the webinar launch of CyberSmart Women on July 22.


Read Next

Watch | Love, Power & Control Part One & Two with Jess Hill

Watch | Love, Power & Control Part One & Two with Jess Hill


Love, Power and Control was a two part webinar series on coercive control, hosted by the Victorian Women’s Trust and moderated by Jess Hill.

Read more