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Tech firms must protect women better online, Ofcom demands

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Ofcom has urged tech firms to do more to keep women safe online after a study found that they are more likely to be affected by online abuse and trolling.

The head of media regulator Ofcom says tech firms must do more to protect women online, after a report revealed that women are more affected by discriminatory, hateful or trolling content than men. 

The findings were part of Ofcom’s 'Online Nation' report, which looked into the online lives of people in the UK.

Only 42 per cent of the women that participated in its survey said they felt comfortable about speaking freely online. The report found women are more likely than men to face online abuse or see harmful content and are also more likely to be distressed by it.

Distressful content often related to negative body image, excessive dieting or eating disorders, as well as misogynistic content and content relating to self-harm or suicide. In general, women were less likely to agree that the benefits of being online outweighed the risks and were less confident than men that they will not come to harm online.

“The message from women who go online is loud and clear. They are less confident about their personal online safety and feel the negative effects of harmful content like trolling more deeply,” said Dame Melanie Dawes, chief executive, Ofcom.

“We urge tech companies to take women’s online safety concerns seriously and place people’s safety at the heart of their services.”

Another survey commissioned by Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, found that 22 per cent of online abuse victims said their ordeals lasted for more than two years, with police routinely telling them to simply block their troll.

Research found more than half of respondents said they had been cyber bullied, while 45 per cent reported having been harassed online and 36 per cent said they had been trolled. Overall, the majority of victims said they were dissatisfied with the way internet companies and the police responded when they complained about the abuse.

“On many occasions, victims found that the police did not understand what was a crime and what was not, were not well-trained in internet skills and were mainly of the view that the right answer was to block the abuser – a pointless exercise given how easy it is to set up a new identity online and start abusing the victim again,” Dame Vera said.

Protecting online users is one of the priorities of the current legislation. Many of these problems are expected to be addressed by the Online Safety Bill, which will place new regulations and requirements on tech firms and social media platforms to protect their users.

The much-delayed bill, which Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said will make the UK “the safest place in the world for our children to go online”, is currently slogging its way through Parliament.

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