Digital Domestic Violence – do we need protections against abuse facilitated on technology?

Digital domestic abuse is a growing and dangerous form of family violence that transcends geography and traditional definitions of domestic violence. Technology facilitates perpetrators’ ability to pervasively control and coerce victims.

Like all forms of domestic violence, this form of abuse is almost entirely gendered and is more widespread than some may think. The 2015 United Nations ‘Wake Up’ Report found that 73% of women experience online abuse.[1] A 2013 SmartSafe Project revealed that where domestic violence occurs, technology-facilitate abuse almost definitely exists too. Of the 152 domestic violence caseworkers and 46 victims in Victoria surveyed, 98% of the caseworkers’ clients reported acts of digital abuse.[2]

Methods of digital abuse include harassment, bullying, and gaslighting through text messaging or via phone call. Additionally, stalking, and unethical monitoring and surveillance can occur through applications such as Find My iPhone. Similarly, the phenomena of ‘revenge porn,’ the unilateral sharing of intimate photos is a devastatingly damaging form of abuse for victims.

Technology-facilitated abuse is psychologically detrimental because it instils ‘a sense of omnipresence and eroding [the victim’s] feelings of safety after separation.[3]

Evidently, technology-facilitated abuse is a central facet of and portends domestic violence and relationships that develop coercive or controlling behaviours.

Undoubtedly, this is a serious issue, so what is occurring to redress the problem?

$30 million has been invested in a national campaign by the Council of Australian Governments, aiming to reduce violence against women and children. Importantly, the campaign “‘will consider strategies to tackle the increased use of technology to facilitate abuse against women.[4]” This at the very least, signals a recognition of the problem.

The current political rhetoric to prevent technology-facilitated abuse involve telling women to decrease their online footprint. Nola Marino MP argues women should “shut off GPS and wi-fi, stay away from social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram; whatever – and remember that the perpetrator will be monitoring the sites of your family and friends.[5]

We are that these statements are dangerous and seek to worsen the problem. Government strategy should be to aim to hold perpetrators to account instead of telling victims to forfeit their digital usage, which could mark the internet as yet another male-dominated area.

It is suggested that the police do express similar advice to this; telling women to forsake their presence on Facebook or using devices.[6] We assert that police need better training, strategies and knowledge in preventing digital domestic abuse as opposed to suggesting avoidance remedies.

There are some federal and state laws in place to prevent digital abuse including the Criminal Code Act 1995 which makes provisions for menacing or harassing behaviour on carriages services and the Victorian 1958 Crimes Act which makes stalking an offence.[7] While there are some measures of protection, a patchwork of legislation will not be effective. A coherent national response is required, especially considering the internet and social media are borderless frontiers.

Additionally, civil protection orders should play an enhanced role in curbing technology-facilitated abuse. While some orders can prevent forms of cyber abuse, its effectiveness is reliant on the clear outlining of want type of abuse represents a violation.[8] The NSW Women’s Legal Service suggests protection orders include stipulations that prevent the surveillance, distribution or threatened distribution of intimate material of the protected person.

Domestic violence is justifiably attracting significant amounts of resources and attention from Australian governments. We cannot forget the online aspects of domestic abuse which foreshadow acts of physical violence and cause fear, distress, and trauma in victims.

Federal and state laws are a central area requiring improvement. However, non-legal solutions such as greater police training and educating current and future generations should not be neglected.

Even so, technology-facilitated abuse is a significant and growing problem that has devastating ramifications for women and children.

Should this be impacting you, advice on digital domestic abuse and your legal position can be gained by contacting Rowan Skinner & Associates to speak to one of our specialist lawyers by phoning 9995 9155.

Bibliography

[1] Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls a Report by the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development Working Group on Broadband and Gender (pp. 1–4). (2015). United Nations. https://www.unwomen.org/~/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2015/cyber_violence_gender%20report.pdf?v=1&d=20150924T154259

[2] Woodlock, Delanie (2013) Technology-facilitated Stalking: Findings and Recommendations from the SmartSafe Project, Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, Collingwood.

[3] Delanie Woodlock, ‘The Abuse of Technology in Domestic Violence and Stalking’ (2017) 23 Violence Against Women 584, 598

[4] Council of Australian Governments. (2015, April 17). COAG Communique [Press release]. https://www.coag.gov.au/sites/default/files/communique/COAG%20Communique%2017%20April%202015.pdf

[5] Marino, N. (8 C.E., February). Parliamentary Speech – Hansard. Aph.gov.au. https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p

[6] Woodlock, Delanie (2015) ReCharge: Women’s Technology Safety, Legal Resources, Research and Training, Women’s Legal Service NSW, Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria and WESNET, Collingwood. pp.16

[7] Al-Alosi, D. (2017, May 27). Technology-facilitated abuse: the new breed of domestic violence. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/technology-facilitated-abuse-the-new-breed-of-domestic-violence-74683

[8] Hadeel al-alosi. (2018, November 8). Cyber-Violence: Digital Abuse in the Context of Domestic Violence. ResearchGate; unknown. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328813010_Cyber-Violence_Digital_Abuse_in_the_Context_of_Domestic_Violence