Online harassment and abuse is increasingly widespread in today’s digitally connected world. This can include online threats and intimidation as well as various forms of technology-facilitated gender-based violence (GBV), such as the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, cyberstalking, and sextortion. Women, girls, and LGBTQI+ individuals are disproportionately affected. Survivors of online harassment and abuse—especially image-based abuse—are often forced to relive their trauma and face ongoing harm that increases exponentially over time, owing to the viral flow of information on digital media and the difficulty of removing damaging, non-consensual content. Simply put: the scale, reach, and amplification effects of technology platforms have exacerbated GBV, and platforms have not sufficiently prevented or addressed how these modalities are used for harm.
To tackle this scourge, President Biden issued a Presidential Memorandum in June 2022 establishing the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse (Task Force), with a mandate to develop concrete actions in a Blueprint to prevent online harassment and abuse, provide support for survivors, increase accountability, and expand research.
Since its launch, the Task Force has heard from hundreds of stakeholders—survivors, advocates, parents, educators, law enforcement, medical and legal professionals, and researchers—who discussed the significant harm caused by online harassment and abuse. The powerful testimonies of survivors, including from youth, college students, public figures, and social media influencers, demonstrate the widespread reach of technology-facilitated GBV. While each of their stories is unique, they share common threads and lessons that informed the initial Task Force Blueprint.
Stakeholders shared with the Task Force how online harassment and abuse can have a severe impact on health, disrupt education, and derail careers. They explained how victims experience real, devastating consequences to their health, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide, as well as increased risk of physical and sexual violence. Survivors described how they self-censored and withdrew from online spaces and from broader engagement in academic, workplace, or social settings, often encouraged to do so by those who were unable—or unwilling—to help. The Task Force also heard from stakeholders about the impact on safety, health and wellbeing of children and youth stemming from the proliferation of child sexual abuse material traded online—including through exposure to unknown adults through gaming and messenger platforms.
The stakes of inaction couldn’t be higher: experts from a range of disciplines underscored to the Task Force that in addition to the devastating effects on individuals, the proliferation of online harassment, abuse and misogyny results in the normalization of this abusive behavior and the degradation of our democracy and public safety, including through the suppression and silencing of diverse voices, and the violent expression of gender-motivated, extremist acts. Despite the pervasive nature of online harassment and abuse, as well as robust evidence of its consequences, it became evident to the Task Force that there is much more to be done to ensure that educators, parents, service providers, the legal system, and society as a whole are aware of and responsive to the issue and its detrimental impacts.
Today, the Biden Harris Administration is releasing an Executive Summary of the initial Task Force Blueprint, which includes a broad range of new and expanded commitments from Federal agencies to address technology-facilitated GBV across four main lines of effort: Prevention, Survivor Support, Accountability, and Research. Through this Blueprint, Senior Administration officials are working to operationalize the President’s call to action in the State of Union for solutions to address online safety, health, privacy, and accountability. While the President continues to call on Congress to do its part, senior officials from Federal departments and agencies are undertaking key actions across the Administration.
The following are highlights from the initial Blueprint developed by the Task Force:
Prevention, including actions to create safer online environments for youth and adults, incorporate digital safety curricula into our schools, and provide resources and trainings for parents, educators, and employers, such as:
- Promoting Prevention through Digital Equity Grants. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Department of Commerce plans to promote prevention efforts and increase awareness of services and support for victims of online harassment and abuse through the forthcoming Notice of Funding Opportunity for the FY24 Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program, which can provide support to digital inclusion projects that address online safety, and work to prevent online harassment and abuse, in order to ensure that all people and communities have the skills, technology, and capacity needed to reap the full benefits of our digital economy.
Survivor Support, including efforts to increase training and technical assistance to law enforcement, prosecutors, educators, and victim advocates, so that survivors can access support and assistance from professionals who recognize the complexities and seriousness of technology-facilitated gender-based violence, such as:
- New Resources to Train Law Enforcement, Prosecutors, and Victim Services Providers on Cybercrimes against Individuals. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 (FY23 omnibus law) allocates $7 million for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to fund two new programs authorized in the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization of 2022 (VAWA), including the establishment of a National Resource Center on Cybercrimes Against Individuals, and grants to provide training and support to State, Tribal, and local law enforcement, prosecutors, and judicial personnel to assist victims of cybercrimes. Cybercrimes is defined in VAWA as the use of electronic interactive devices to harass, threaten, stalk, extort, coerce, cause fear to, or intimidate an individual, or without consent distribute intimate images of an adult.
Accountability, including strengthening coordination among Federal, state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cyberstalking, image-based abuse, sextortion, and child sexual exploitation online, and providing resources for workplaces and schools to hold individuals accountable for engaging in online harassment and abuse, such as:
- Guidance to Institutions of Higher Education on Clery Act Obligations regarding Online Harassment and Abuse. The Department of Education will issue guidance to help institutions comply with the Clery Act and educate students and employees about their rights and options under the law. This forthcoming guidance will clarify that certain acts of online harassment and abuse, including the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, are reportable offenses under the Clery Act when they occur as part of a pattern of cyberstalking and for hate crimes that are classified as acts of intimidation.
- New Initiative for the Prosecution and Investigation of Online Abuse. DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women will launch an initiative, with the funding allocated in the FY 23 bipartisan omnibus, focused on the prosecution and investigation of online abuse.
Research, to inform evidence-based interventions, deepen our understanding of the impacts of exposure to online harassment and abuse, including mental health implications for youth and adults, and guide upstream efforts to prevent young men and boys from engaging in targeted acts of violence that share roots with online misogyny and other forms of hate, such as:
- Research on Online Harassment, Abuse, and Youth Social and Emotional Development. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will host a scientific workshop to identify gaps and challenges in advancing the research agenda on online harassment and abuse, and continue to support investigator-initiated research to better understand the clinical and developmental implications of online harassment and abuse, including child sexual exploitation and sextortion. This will complement efforts by NIH to implement the bipartisan Children and Media Research Advancement Act (CAMRA), passed by Congress in the bipartisan omnibus law, which directs $15 million in the first of a multi-year initiative for NIH to research technology and media’s effects on infants, children, and adolescents in core areas of cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional development.
Other recent actions to address online harassment and abuse include:
- Supporting Survivors of Technology-Facilitated Abuse to Separate from their Abusers’ Mobile Phone and Wireless Accounts. In February, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed rules to implement key provisions in the recently enacted Safe Connections Act to support survivors of domestic abuse and other related crimes seeking to maintain critical connections with friends, family, and support networks. These proposed rules would help survivors obtain separate service lines (through their mobile phones and broadband plans) from shared accounts that include their abusers, protect the privacy of calls made by survivors to domestic abuse hotlines, and provide support for survivors who suffer from financial hardship through the FCC’s affordability programs.
- Advancing Research on Targeted Violence, Exploring its Nexus with Misogyny, Online Harassment, and Domestic Violence. Earlier this month, the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), under the Department of Homeland Security, released Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: 2016 – 2020, a comprehensive report examining 173 incidents of targeted violence and highlighting the observable commonalities among the attackers. The report reinforces NTAC’s prior research demonstrating that individuals who perpetrate acts of targeted violence frequently display histories of concerning behavior, including hate-based beliefs, domestic violence, harassment, and threatening online communications.
- Holding Gaming Platforms Accountable Under the Federal Trade Commission’s Authority. In December 2022, the Federal Trade Commission settled two actions against Epic Games, Inc., creator of the popular video game Fortnite, requiring the company to pay a total of $520 million in relief over allegations it violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and employed dark patterns—design practices to intentionally manipulate users—to charge consumers without authorization. In a first-of-its-kind provision, the settlement also requires Epic to adopt strong privacy default settings for children and teens, ensuring that voice and text communications are turned off by default, in order to reduce the risk of matching children and teens with adult strangers. In a complaint filed in federal court, the FTC alleged that Epic violated the COPPA Rule by collecting personal information from children under 13 who played Fortnite, a child-directed online service, without notifying their parents or obtaining their parents’ verifiable consent. Epic also allegedly violated the FTC Act’s prohibition against unfair practices by enabling real-time voice and text chat communications for children and teens by default, exposing them to dangerous and psychologically traumatizing issues such as suicide, as well as bullying, threats and harassment.
- Preventing and Addressing Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence Globally. In December 2022, the Administration released an updated U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, which bolsters U.S. commitments to prevent and address this global scourge, including a specific objective to prevent and respond to technology-facilitated gender-based violence. The Strategy complements the Administration’s ongoing efforts to better prioritize, understand, prevent, and address technology-facilitated gender-based violence through the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, which the U.S. launched in 2022 and coordinates with 11 other countries.
Over the next year, the Task Force will work across key federal agencies to build on the initial Blueprint for Action, and will release a final report at the end of the year. The Biden-Harris Administration recognizes online harassment and abuse as a multifaceted problem requiring a multifaceted response. As an Administration, we will continue to harness the whole of government to address it, as a matter of gender equity and equality, national security, and technology accountability. We will therefore continue to pursue meaningful actions to address online harassment and abuse in all its forms, recognizing that bolstering online safety requires coordination and accountability across sectors, spanning Federal, state, Tribal, territorial and local governments, community-based organizations, schools, and the private sector, including the tech sector.