South Africa: New law protects women from online abuse

President Cyril Ramaphosa has signed laws extending protection against online and social media harm

Last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed three laws that can strengthen protections against gender-based violence and improve access to justice for victims and survivors. One of them, the Domestic Violence Amendment Act, focuses on violence online and in social media.

Expanded definitions

When the Domestic Violence Amendment Act was first introduced in September 2020, the bill took into account the role of technology in domestic violence. This sparked the interest of a collective of activists, technologists, policy makers, researchers and feminists, who submitted proposals to Parliament. Accordingly, the law includes changes resulting in a relatively comprehensive recognition of online damages.

The new definition of electronic communications includes various forms of audio, text, video and digital images, but it also includes simulated and manipulated information. The law may therefore offer protection against the sharing of manipulated and deeply false non-consensual images (videos or images altered to create fake content that appears genuine).

An expanded definition of harassment now includes various forms of online harassment, such as:

repeatedly contact a person through electronic communications, for example on social networks and messaging platforms or calls;

gain unauthorized access to a person’s electronic devices or social media or email accounts;

use technology to monitor or track a person’s movements or activities without their consent;

send an abusive, degrading, offensive or humiliating message or media; violates or offends that person’s sexual integrity or dignity; or inspires the belief that they can be harmed;

send media or a message about someone to someone else that contains private information or is abusive, offensive or threatening.

The definition of sexual harassment now includes, for example, sending unwanted electronic communications of a sexual nature. It also offers protection against “disclosure” (the non-consensual sharing of information about a person’s sexual orientation, sex or gender expression).

The definition of bullying is also expanded to include threatening behavior through electronic communications.

Together, these expanded definitions have created a field of protection against behaviors such as doxing (posting a person’s private or identifying information), deep fakes, deadnaming (revealing a transgender person’s former name or non-binary without their consent), going out, consensual non-sharing of intimate images and digital harassment.

Equality and inclusion

In response to public comments, lawmakers amended the domestic violence law to use gender-neutral language, such as “they” instead of “he/she”. This is the second time in South Africa’s recent history that the legislature has adopted gender-neutral language.

The law also provides protection against dating as a form of sexual harassment and as a form of emotional, verbal or psychological abuse. This is an important step towards better protecting the rights of sexual and gender minorities, online and offline.

Using technology to access justice

The law now allows victims and survivors to apply for domestic violence protection orders online. Bullying, harassment and sexual harassment are all part of the umbrella term “domestic violence”.

The law also provides for a centralized database of domestic violence protection orders, which can improve the practical operation of the protection order process.

The law requires providers of electronic communications services to provide information to a court to help identify the author of a harmful electronic communication. This inclusion stems from a similar provision in the Protection from Harassment Act.

Despite all of this, South Africa’s Great Digital Divide, where there is significant inequality in internet access and digital literacy, means there is a long way to go before these protections fail. extend to all who need it.

There are also privacy implications, since these domestic violence protection orders contain sensitive information. The law recognizes this and requires the administrator of the protection order directory to consult with the information regulator.

Towards safer online spaces

Legal recognition that online gender-based violence is part of the same gender-based violence continuum is welcome. We can also celebrate the role of the public participation process in supporting the development of responsive and inclusive laws.

But there is still work to be done. We need digital literacy, training and better awareness of law enforcement officials, magistrates and clerks to enable them to tackle online harms and effectively implement the law.

Recognizing online harms and knowing your options is a crucial step towards a safer, more accessible and inclusive internet.

Tina Power is a Principal Researcher at ALT Advisory.

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