Safer Internet Day: We must rethink consent online

Consent is simple.

It means giving permission for something to happen and also – this is key – being comfortable giving that permission.

This year’s Safer Internet Day invites us to think about how consent works in digital spaces. Since, according to Ofcom research, we check our phones every 12 minutes and spend, on average, more than a full day a week online, how we relate through the Internet is not insignificant. With a series of taps we are able to connect, interact and share with millions around the world. But the terms on which we interact are not always consensual.

Being coerced into sharing, engaging and communicating in ways we find uncomfortable can be emotionally devastating. Online, this can involve experiencing unwanted sharing of intimate images and videos, having personal information published without our consent, being shamed or deadnamed.

Safer Internet Day sheds light on the range of approaches people take to hurt others online – often strangers but not always . Research published by Project deSHAME, found 6% of 13-17 year olds across the UK, Denmark and Hungary have had their nude or nearly nude image shared with others without permission in the last year, while 2 in 5 have witnessed this happening. Alarmingly,

25% reported witnessing young people secretly taking images of others and sharing them online while 10% admitted having done this themselves in the last year. Non-consensual sharing of images might be done flippantly – perhaps you have seen others doing it for a laugh – but it is one hurtful way in which people are intimidated, disrespected and shamed online.

Girls and women are most at risk; research published by Amnesty International revealed women in the UK and US receive abuse online every thirty seconds – and that’s just on Twitter. Online abuse, whether doxing (publication of private information with malicious intent), online stalking, hate speech, harassment and trolling, always involves treating people in ways no one would consent to be treated.

Conversations about consent – particularly in thinking about healthy relationships – have become more open over the past five years. The viral Thames Valley Police Tea and Consent video from 2015 helped clarify the concept’s simplicity. It explains consent with an analogy of (not) forcing others to drink tea and starkly shows the discomfort and inappropriateness of disrespecting people’s boundaries and preferences. Online, this simple principle of respect is regularly violated.

Last year’s  #PlaneBae incident saw a woman on a flight secretly photographed and ultimately harassed when a fictional romance thread captured the public’s imagination on social media. The thread shared on Twitter gained more than half a million likes. The woman was doxxed and targeted with hate messages, despite her repeatedly stating she was not comfortable with the public attention.

This Safer Internet Day, let’s consider a broader understanding of consent: an understanding that covers more than our individual decisions on how much data to share, or whether to accept all the cookies and agree to Terms and Conditions on a particular website. Let’s reflect on what we can do, as online bystanders and digital citizens, to challenge abusive tactics such as doxing and deadnaming.

Understanding different forms of online abuse and how different people are affected is the first step.  Let’s challenge wider patterns of misogyny, misogynoir, racial discrimination and anonymous hate that violate consent online.  Join the conversation with Glitch’s upcoming TweetChat to learn more about different forms of online gender-based violence and ways it can be addressed on Wednesday 13th February 12:30pm (GMT).

We can challenge our friends to reconsider before sharing photos of others, and be mindful about how we engage with others, and ask whether we ourselves would comfortably consent for our friends and family to be treated in the way we treat, or see others treated, online. Consent, while simple in theory, is revolutionary. It provides language to defend dignity, which can seem abstract and distant online.


Written by: Sussie Anie – Creative Agent

Editor: Seyi Akiwowo- Executive Director


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