The White House will launch a task force to curb online abuse and harassment

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

The launch meets Biden’s campaign commitment to summon experts to study online sexual harassment, stalking and non-consensual pornography, as well as the link between such abuse, mass shootings and violence against women. The long-awaited initiative begins after the Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo massacres, which involved attackers with stories of online threats and radicalization.

“We see it over and over, we see issues of extremism and how they turn into violence,” a senior White House official told reporters in a phone call Wednesday night.

Before the massacre, the Uvalde gunman often threatened teenage girls online

Vice President Harris, who has worked to address online exploitation throughout his career, will unveil the task force at a White House event on Thursday, which will bring together senior administration officials, as well as survivors of online harassment and civil society experts. Once launched, the task force will have 180 days to create a set of policy recommendations for the government, as well as recommendations for technology companies, schools and other entities. It will also provide recommendations for further research.

Harris’ efforts to curb online abuse have a controversial history. She was a co-sponsor of FOSTA-SESTA, a law that opened tech companies to legal action if they knowingly hosted sex trafficking on their websites. Opponents of the law said the measure had a chilling effect on online speech and damaged prostitutes’ ability to communicate safely.

Harris’s involvement follows her work as California Attorney General, when she pursued a case against a cyber-exploiting website operator, and efforts as a senator to make the non-consensual sharing of illicit images illegal. Yet there is still no federal law prohibiting 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, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and other heads of federal agencies and policy councils.

The Biden administration took office with high expectations for developing protocols to address the hatred and violence that spreads online, particularly after the Capitol uprising on January 6, 2021. But despite public criticism of social media companies media, the White House has so far taken little action in the area.

The administration’s highest-profile social media initiative to date – the Homeland Security Department’s Disinformation Governance Council – was disbanded after a flurry of attacks. The council’s stated purpose was to “coordinate the fight against disinformation related to national security,” but it became a lightning rod after conservatives raised concerns about online censorship they believe could stem from the initiative.

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

The White House official said the online abuse task force will focus on “illegal conduct,” including cyberstalking, online abuse of child pornography and trafficking.

“We are very attentive to First Amendment issues,” the official said. “But banning threatening speech is not protected by the First Amendment. So while we address these issues carefully, we will also remain focused on the non-vocal aspects. “

Harassment online is widespread and disproportionately affects young women and lesbian, gay or bisexual adults. 33% of women under the age of 35 say they have experienced sexual harassment online, compared with 11% of men, according to the Pew Research Center. According to the same data, around 7 out of 10 lesbian, gay or bisexual adults have experienced harassment online.

The White House official said the task force has not focused on any specific social media platform and will “look for opportunities to interact with industry experts and leaders” to improve the safety and design of their products.

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