White House launches task force to combat online abuse and harassment

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The White House on Thursday launched a task force focused on preventing online abuse, marking one of the most significant steps the Biden administration has taken to examine the connection. between digital vitriol and violence.

The launch fulfills a promise Biden made during the campaign trail to bring together experts to study online sexual harassment, stalking and non-consensual pornography, and the link between these abuses and mass shootings and violence against women. . The long-awaited move follows massacres in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, which involved attackers with a history of online threats and radicalization.

“We continue to see how some acts of mass violence, including the most recent, have followed expressions of hate and abuse online,” Kamala D. Harris said at a White House event Thursday to kick off the working group. Harris cited the previous Washington Post reporting that a girl who saw Uvalde’s shooter threaten on social media said it was just “how online it is.”

“Think about it,” she said. “Hate has become so common on the internet that as a society it is becoming normalized and, for users, some might say, inevitable.”

Before the massacre, the Uvalde shooter frequently threatened teenage girls online

The White House event brought together senior administration officials, as well as survivors of online harassment and civil society experts. The task force will have 180 days to create a set of policy recommendations for the government, as well as recommendations for tech companies, schools and other entities. It will also make recommendations for further research and increased support for victims.

The group will examine whether existing federal laws are adequate to address how technology facilitates gender-based violence and provide recommendations for strengthening those safeguards, according to a White House fact sheet.

“For far too many people, the internet is a place of fear,” Harris said.

The group’s recommendations will be due towards the end of the year, after the midterm elections. Many Democrats have expressed concern that the party could lose its tight control of Congress midterm, complicating any congressional efforts to implement the panel’s findings by revising laws governing the tech industry.

Harris’ efforts to combat online abuse also have a controversial history. She was a co-sponsor of FOSTA-SESTA, a law that opened up tech companies to prosecution if they knowingly hosted sex trafficking on their websites. The law won broad bipartisan support, eliminating the Senate in a 97-2 vote, but opponents said the measure had a chilling effect on online speech and harmed sex workers’ ability to communicate safely.

Harris’ involvement follows her work as California attorney general, when she pursued a case against the operator of a cyber-exploitation website, and efforts as a senator to make it illegal to share non consensual of illicit images. Yet, no federal law prohibits such activity. The task force is co-chaired by the White House Gender Policy Council and the National Security Council, and includes the attorney general, health and human services secretary and other heads of federal agencies. and political advice.

The Biden administration came into office with high expectations to develop protocols to deal with the hate and violence spreading online, especially after the Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021. But despite public criticism at towards social media companies, the White House has so far taken little action in this area.

The administration’s most high-profile social media initiative to date — the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Council — has been disbanded after a barrage of attacks. The council’s stated goal was to ‘coordinate the fight against homeland security-related disinformation’, but it became a lightning rod after conservatives raised concerns about online censorship they said could stem initiative.

How the Biden administration let right-wing attacks derail its disinformation efforts

In a briefing to reporters, a senior White House official said the online abuse task force would focus on “unlawful conduct” including cyberstalking, online abuse related to child pornography and trafficking. .

“We are very aware of the problems with the First Amendment,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the White House’s plans. “But the ban on threatening speech is not protected by the First Amendment. So while we’ll carefully navigate these issues, we’ll also stay focused on the non-vocal aspects.

Online harassment is widespread and disproportionately affects young women and lesbian, gay or bisexual adults. Thirty-three percent of women under 35 say they have been sexually harassed online, compared to 11 percent of men, according to the Pew Research Center. About 7 in 10 lesbian, gay or bisexual adults have experienced online harassment, according to the same data.

The White House official said the task force was not focusing on any specific social media platform and would “seek opportunities to engage with experts and industry leaders” to improve security and the design of their products. Expert panelists at the first task force meeting on Thursday will include Sloane Stephens, an American tennis champion who has advocated for mental health issues, and Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. and president of the Cyber ​​Civil Rights Initiative, a non-profit organization focused on fighting online discrimination.

Stephens opened Thursday’s event by sharing her personal experience, saying she faces attacks online whether she wins or loses a game. She says people online found out where she lives and she had to step up with credible threats to authorities and seek therapy following abuse. Sometimes when she leaves a game, she doesn’t even think about tennis.

“I’m just worried about what will be on the other end of my phone because I know what will be waiting for me when I unlock it,” she said.

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