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Digital Safety: A guide for women

Online safety is a concern to all of us, but especially women who are faced with increasing levels of abuse online. Coupled with the fact that legislation is slow to react and responses from digital platforms are mediocre at best, it’s a situation that needs our attention.

Late last year the Australian eSafety Commissioner and Netsafe New Zealand ran Online Safety-On The Edge to bring influential leaders and thinkers from around the world who are dedicated to creating a safer online world. As Tuesday 6 February is Safer Internet Day, we thought there was no time like the present to talk about online safety. 

Here are five key takeaways from the conference regarding women’s safety online.

  1. You can now report imaged based abuse (IBA) and cyberbullying to the eSafety Commissioner

“If you have been a target of imaged based abuse the most important thing to remember is that it is not your fault and you are not alone,” says the website.  Music to our ears!

Last year, VWT staff wrote a submission to the eSafety Commissioner’s inquiry into IBA and legislation in June so we’ve been closely following the launch of the Commission’s e-reporting tool (which you can find on the eSafety Commission’s website). The website covers your rights, advice on what to do, legislation surrounding IBA in your state and most importantly, it allows you to report abuse anonymously. 

  1. What do online abusers (unhelpfully called “trolls”) want and how should we respond?

“I just think to myself every time I get a nasty troll, ‘You have no power over me.’”- Jane Caro, social commentator, writer and lecturer

Journalist Ginger Gorman has investigated online abusers and found that many just want to inflict damage and pain on people they don’t know because it gives them an immense sense of power. ‘Targeting your weakest point is just business to them and they do it without caring who you are.’ This abuse can lead to real life trauma and reporting persistent online abusers is important.

However, Ginger said that this knowledge of how impersonal the abuse is can empower us as potential targets by not giving online abusers what they want, ‘I’m a big fan of the no respond, “We’re silent to the them but not to each other” in combating abuse and harassment online.’

  1. Technology can be a very powerful tool of control and abuse

We heard from various service providers who explained how gendered stereotypes around technology, that it’s for men to set up, can be used to track and control their partner in a myriad of ways. Helen Campbell, from the NSW Women’s Legal Service said, ‘men are usually more tech-savvy, but this technology is being used to control the women. He set up her accounts, he set up the passwords, so there’s no point in telling someone to change their settings. They were taught by the perpetrator…we have to stop telling women to increase their safety, we need the perpetrators to stop.’ What might seem sweet and helpful is actually controlling and abusive behaviour. Hear, hear!

If you think that increasing your knowledge of technology safety and privacy WESNET has a great guide on their website

However, we heard at the conference that if you believe you are being abused using technology, telling someone you trust and documenting what has happened (in an analog way if you think you are being tracked via your devices) is useful for police and services. Advice for bystanders: if you think your colleague or friend is being abused using technology, support them to respond in a way that they think is safe—they know the perpetrator best after all.

  1. Social media and internet companies want you to report abuse and ask them to take down content

Mia Garlick, Director of Policy for Facebook in Australia and NZ gave us five reasons why Facebook hasn’t taken down content you reported:

  • Sometimes it’s a difference of opinions, people are disagreeing and one person wants the other one kicked off
  • One particular post or comment is the problem and people then report whole pages and the whole page doesn’t violate Facebook’s policies
  • We make mistakes! We use automation for some things where we know that we’re already getting it right. We use Microsoft’s photograph technology and image-matching technology. For the vast bulk of work we do is with humans and we make mistakes. We don’t want to keep making mistakes.
  • Human behaviours change but we sometimes need to update how we define harassment and bullying based on social expectations and we are working on that.

While it can be frustrating and disempowering to have your reports rejected, companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook need more people to report so that they know the issues users are facing and get better at addressing them. The eSafety Commissioner’s eportal is a place you can go to if a site hasn’t removed content for you and the Commissioner can now act on your behalf.

  1. We’re in this together

While it may seem like the negatives outweigh the positives for women’s safety online we mustn’t lose sight of our shared goal of creating a safer online world for women. The more we speak out about abuse, report it to companies, deny power to online abusers and speak to each other, the closer we can get to changing norms and redefining behaviour in both the online and offline worlds.

Happy interneting!


Casimira Melican
Casimira Melican is the lead policy researcher at the Victorian Women’s Trust and a regular contributor to the VWT blog. She has co-written submissions to the Victorian and Federal Governments on diverse topics such as women’s superannuation, paid parental leave and women’s leadership. She is passionate about creating a world where everyone feels safe always, whether offline or online.

Follow on Twitter @CasimiraMelican or LinkedIn @Casimira Melican 

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