Ambassador Q&A: Michael Hovane
White Ribbon Ambassador Michael Hovane explores the issue of technology facilitated abuse and how the law and individuals have responded to developments in the e-communication space.
What is your day job?
I manage the Domestic Violence Unit at Legal Aid WA, which helps women who are victims of family violence. We provide women with legal advice/representation, safety planning, brief counselling and liaison with/referral to Refuges, Police and other services. Our Unit is also part of collaborative, co-located family violence services run in partnership with advocacy, counselling and women’s health services. Additionally, the Unit and myself have key a role in influencing family violence related systems, policy and legislation. Currently I am on secondment working on a specific Project at Legal Aid, looking at our Family Violence Risk Assessment and Professional Development across staff and services.
How long have you been a White Ribbon Ambassador?
Since the mid-2000s. Identifying and responding to family violence and raising awareness of violence against women is something I am very passionate about, particularly within the legal/judicial system and with other groups such as doctors, nurses, psychologists, students, teachers and the judiciary.
In your experience, how have new technologies and the internet changed the way in which abuse against women occurs?
Abuse, stalking and control of women via technologies has been very common for some time now and continues to increase in prevalence. In my role I focus on situations where technologies are used as part of a pattern of family violence towards an ex-partner. There has also been a huge rise in technologies being used more generally as a vehicle for misogyny and gender abuse against women.
Ten or 15 years ago, more common forms of abuse by technologies might have been threats and harassment by SMS or email. Today, abuse by technology is much broader and more insidious. This includes threats of posting intimate images of women online, tracking women’s location and activity via apps or surveillance devices and spyware software that provide covert access to information on women’s personal devices.
It also includes abusers using software to falsify the sender, so women think messages are coming from someone else. Abusers might use technology to set up fake Facebook accounts, which can be used to impersonate the woman and try to damage her reputation by the abuser sharing graphic sexual content.
A 2015 National study which surveyed Domestic Violence services found that the 4 most common forms of abuse were by SMS, email, Facebook and GPS tracking by smartphone.
New technologies have in some ways made it simpler and easier for abusers, however it is also important to remember that technologies can be positive tools for women to connect to support services and enhance their safety, as well as helping prove abuse.
For example, there are many examples of voice or video recordings made on mobile phones being used to prove abuse and threats in Family Court, criminal and civil protection order proceedings.
Other positive examples of technology are the many excellent Apps which can be used by women for information and safety.
How has the legal sector responded to the proliferation of ways in which abuse can be perpetrated using various technologies?
The legal sector has responded by trying to educate lawyers and the judiciary about these forms of abuse. Sessions on family violence/abuse and new technologies have featured heavily in legal education in recent times. This helps ensure lawyers and courts understand the risks and impacts on clients and assist clients to have appropriate orders and safety plans to reduce the risk of these things happening.
Additionally, the sector has responded by abusers being charged with crimes under existing State and Commonwealth offences. This has included State stalking and threats offences and Commonwealth offences of using telecommunications (SMS, email or social media) services to threaten, offend or harass.
Another example of adapting existing laws is where women have successfully sued ex-partners in civil claims for damages, for breaching their privacy by posting or distributing intimate photos or video of them to others.
Examples include WA’s new Family Violence legislation passed by the State Government late last year, which has made very clear that abuse through technologies is a ground for a civil protection order. Other examples include Victoria and South Australia changing their criminal laws in 2014 and 2016 respectively, to make it a specific crime to “sext” or threaten to “sext” intimate images of someone without their consent.
What developments do you hope to see in the e-communications space in regard to the prevention of abuse against women?
It’s a world-wide phenomenon that people more readily engage in abusive communication through e-communication than they would in person. However, abuse by e-communication should be treated no differently from abuse in person.
Continued awareness, prevention and education are also important. We need to continue to do more in this area, to make it clear that abuse via technologies is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. A great example of positive education and prevention is the recent Commonwealth funded resources provided at the website of the Office of E Safety.
Additionally, it would be great to see more proactive and rigorous laws and standards against e-abuse. This includes the introduction of laws against non-consensual sexting in other Australian States and review of stalking laws to explicitly recognise that stalking can be done via apps and other technologies.
Another idea, suggested by one of my lawyers, would be to have services that can check and “clean” women’s phones and devices, to make sure there are no unwanted apps, software, spyware or tracking, so they don’t have to replace their device.
What advice would you give men who want to encourage others to communicate respectfully online?
The same advice that I would to men generally, i.e acknowledge that most men are respectful, but emphasise that it is important that we also take a stand to let other men know that abusive communication is not OK. This includes not to remain silent if other men are abusive, and take whatever steps you safely can to prevent, challenge and remove abusive communication, including complaining to the moderator or authorities where appropriate.
Michael wishes to acknowledge the valuable contributions of Katia Nadalin, WA Ombudsman’s Office and Anne-Marie O’Neill, Domestic Violence Legal Unit, Legal Aid WA, in the development of this Q&A content.
. ReCharge: Women’s Technology Safety – National Study Findings 2015, DVRCV with Women’s Legal Services NSW and WESNET, see under “Resources” at the Smart Safe website.
. Recording someone without their consent is usually unlawful, but there are exceptions under most state laws, which make recording lawful if it is reasonably necessary to protect your interests. This exception has generally been interpreted as making it lawful to record without consent to prove domestic violence, stalking and harmful behaviour. An excellent summary of relevant state and national surveillance laws can be found at the Smart Safe website under “Legal Guides”. Civil protection orders are called “VROs” or “Violence Restraining Orders” in WA and are called “AVOs”, “DVOs”, “FVOs”, “DVIOs” or other names in other states.
. Eg For examples and links to apps search under the term “Apps” on the 1800 Respect website.
. E.g. Wilson v Ferguson  WASC 15, where the man had to pay damages of $48,000 to his ex-partner, for posting nude photos of her on Facebook.