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The internet should be safe for women. But it's not.

August 11 2016 By Mary Barry and Susanne Legena

Little by little, small victory by small victory, women are taking action to claim the internet as a safe space. But the law is letting them down.

Last week, self-confessed internet troll Zane Alchin — who sent vile abuse to women he did not know on Facebook in 2015 — was let off with a 12-month good behaviour bond.

While the public interest in this case has the potential to send a message to would-be trolls that they are no longer shielded from the law, this sentence simply isn’t good enough.

A woman copping abhorrent abuse from men hiding behind their keyboards is by no means a new phenomenon.

What makes this case so interesting is that Alchin is one of the first high profile cases involving an internet user pleading guilty to using a carriage service to menace, harass, or cause offence, under the 1997 Telecommunications Act.

Recently, the troll who posted vile racist abuse on Nova Peris’ Facebook page was given an eight-month suspended sentence under the same act. He has since penned a letter to her, which she deemed as “genuinely remorseful”. We doubt Alchin’s victims will receive the same apology.

The maximum penalty for this crime is three years in jail, so like many others, we are very disappointed with the outcome, considering the levity of his crime. One must ask, would it have been different if the abuse was in-person?

In 2015, Alchin wrote and posted 55 obscene and hate-filled comments over a two-hour period on the Facebook page of a woman he had never met. We won’t repeat the worst of what was said, but it included comments about rape, which the judge later dismissed as he did not view them as threatening. We disagree.

When confronted by the woman’s friends who reminded him his behaviour was illegal, Alchin responded: “What law am I breaking? I’m not the one out of the f*****g kitchen”. He told police he was merely indulging in a bit of “internet trolling”, as if it were as inane a pastime as playing Solitaire.

Alchin also argued he was drunk at the time. Sound familiar? This is the same pitiful excuse violent men often attempt to hide behind, including the Stanford University rapist, Brock Turner. Alcohol is never an excuse for violence, nor for online harassment. There is absolutely no excuse for either.

There is an online culture of hatred for women perpetuated by some men, which seems to be strengthened by the anonymity and the lack of interpersonal connection.

Recently, feminist blogger Clementine Ford uncovered an abhorrent online “men’s only” Facebook group, riddled with astonishingly vicious posts describing disturbingly violent accounts of real-life rapes and abuses of women.

Once she began reposting these comments, some men in the group argued they had been victimised, humiliated and their privacy invaded.

The irony of hate-filled men complaining about women infiltrating their “safe space” where they can “privately” express their views on abuse of women, rape and extreme violence is palpable.

If a man unleashed a torrent of violent verbal abuse and made threats to rape a woman on a train, he’d most likely be accosted by concerned bystanders, arrested and charged with harassment.

So what makes the online world so different? Do we inherently believe that because it is “virtual” that it doesn’t make the emotional impacts of harassment any less profound?

Also last week, we were horrified to learn news of a prominent columnist who deleted her social media accounts after a troll threatened to rape her five-year-old daughter.

How could anyone possibly argue that online abuse is harmless?

We acknowledge it is a crime frequently perpetrated by both sexes. But the fact is that young women are the most vulnerable to online sexual harassment from men.

A report released in March by Plan International Australia and Our Watch, Don’t send me that pic!, revealed 60 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 years old had received uninvited indecent or sexually explicit content online.

For many girls and young women, it’s a central part of their daily experience. Yet only 28 per cent told us they would report the abuse. We wonder if this is because they don’t feel supported by the legal system.

They also told us young people should be better educated about respectful relationships to prevent men from feeling entitled to perpetrate such violence.

Alchin’s victim’s friends did the right thing to report him. But because they anticipated the punishment would be paltry, they began a social media campaign, Sexual Violence won’t be Silenced, aiming to expose and punish trolls who target women. Their message is clear: be warned men, the internet is no longer your invisibility cloak.

Exposing online abuse is useful, but we can’t expect women to have to take the law into their own hands every time they are abused online. This issue needs to be taken more seriously before it costs lives.

The Federal Government’s Australian Law Commission concedes that there is a general lack of public awareness of the criminal offences relating to cyber-harassment and that there is reticence from law enforcement to apply these charges due to lack of training and expertise.

These vagaries around the law and the fact that this law is almost 20 years old is problematic. Technology and its ability to infiltrate women’s homes and minds has overtaken the law’s capability to truly address this problem.

In a way, the outcome with Alchin’s case is progress, but it is not enough. Unless the law truly recognises that the internet is an unsafe space for women, we will only continue to see these small steps forward.

Mary Barry is the CEO of Our Watch and Susanne Legena is the Deputy CEO of Plan International Australia

This article was first published on Rendez-View.

Media contact

For enquiries or further information: 
Our Watch: Joanna Cooney, 0423 049 322, joanna.cooney@ourwatch.org.au 
Plan International Australia: Jane Gardner, 0438 130 905, jane.gardner@plan.org.au

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:

“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.”

Access guides for reporting about violence against women and their children.

About Our Watch 

Our Watch’s (previously the Foundation to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children) purpose is to raise awareness and engage the community in action to prevent violence against women and their children.
 
Our Watch was conceived of and brought into existence in 2013 by the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of Victoria. The Northern Territory, South Australian, Tasmanian, Queensland and Australian Capital Territory governments have also since become members of the organisation.
 
Our Watch’s work derives from the government’s commitment to the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022 and gives expression to many of the activities in the Second Action Plan 2013–2016 – Moving Ahead.

About Plan International Australia

Plan International Australia is one of the world’s oldest and largest child rights development agencies. We work in over 70 countries around the world to tackle the root causes of poverty, inequality and injustice. Plan’s flagship ‘Because I am a Girl Campaign’ is working to create a world that values girls, promotes their rights and ends injustice.