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The 4th industrial revolution resulted in a new billion-dollar industry with a group of globally operating internet service providers (ISPs) in charge of what we daily see on social media, how we communicate, what information we will read on the basis of chosen algorithms. These ISPs often act as intermediaries enabling the sharing of content rather than creating content themselves. Therefore, under the current legal framework of e-commerce ISPs are not required to actively react against illegal or harmful content. The reasoning goes that only the users responsible for the content should be targeted to ensure the free flow of e-communication, e-commerce, the freedom of information and expression.

This paradigm has been put in question due to the evolution of the internet as a platform for spreading hate, violence, and crime. Cyberviolence is a specific part of this harmful online conduct, whereby digital action results in physical, sexual, psychological and/or economic harm or suffering of individuals. ISPs are already acting against harmful content if they are notified and some ISPs go a step further in self-regulating. Yet, this is often considered unsatisfactory. Therefore, NGOs, national, and EU authorities currently discuss whether the exemption of liability for ISPs in the light of cyberviolence is still justified and whether authorities should not step in further.

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The project examines to what extent the current approach to cyber violence is effective or needs further improvement. It focuses on two types of cyberviolence, online hate speech and non-consensual distribution of intimate images (NCII). While existing legal and judicial tools are being scrutinised by Belgian and European authorities to better fight these forms of cyberviolence, a thorough understanding of these phenomena and their prevalence is still lacking, especially in Belgium

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Therefore, this project in the first place wants to understand these phenomena in Belgium through qualitative research focusing on how users, moderators of ISPs, and stakeholders delineate online hate and NCII and the permissible or harmful nature of such content. Based on these results, quantitative research will map the prevalence of the phenomena in Belgian society with a focus on digital natives. Moreover, victims’ coping behaviors, their use of and trust in reporting mechanisms, will be assessed.

In the second place, it will be considered whether and how these phenomena can be tackled by legal and/or judicial response, building on current practises and the outcomes of the qualitative and quantitative research. The remedies against harmful content will be counterbalanced against the freedom of information and expression within the framework of the digital market. This includes the assessment of the role of public authorities and ISPs discussing whether new balances and legislative action are required.

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The research is intrinsically multi-disciplinary as it approaches the phenomena from the perspective of social sciences, criminology, anthropology, and legal sciences. Within the work packages, the respective disciplines will interact to acquire in-depth, multi-faceted knowledge of both phenomena. Apart from the scientific output, the project intends to offer policy-makers and stakeholders a clear understanding of the phenomena for future initiatives and activities, as well as to provide input on how to further develop the e-commerce framework taking into account the impact of cyberviolence.


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