Browse By

Remarks by Vice President Harris Announcing the Launch of the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse

By: White House: Office of the Vice President

Eisenhower Executive Office Building

1:52 P.M. EDT

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Please have a seat.  Hi, everyone.  Well, let me start by saying it is so good to be with our Attorney General, Merrick Garland; our Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy; and on Gender Policy Council — where she? — Dr. Jennifer Klein; and all the members of the task force.  Thank you all for the work you do, for the extraordinary work that you do.

Sloane, thank you for your courage.  It takes a lot to put yourself out there as a public figure, period, but then to speak out about something so many people, regardless of gender, are experiencing.  So thank you for your leadership.  Thank you.

And to all the other survivors who are here today: You motivate us.  You inspire us.  And you are the voice of so many people who are in this room because of the voice that you express around these issues.  And so I thank you for that and your strength and your sense of purpose.

And in particular, I also want to acknowledge Matthew and Francesca. 

So I know it is not easy to talk about what you’ve experienced.  And as all of you know, most of my career, I spent it as a prosecutor.  And the majority of that time, I was focused on crimes affecting women and children, crimes that involved sexual abuse.  And — and in many of the cases, in particular when they were going to trial, and we were prepared to go to trial, I’d sit down for extensive periods of time to talk with the survivors about their case and talk with them about what it would be like when they were going to walk out of my office and walk down the hall and walk into a courtroom.

And for some, as you all know, it was impossible to imagine what it would mean to speak publicly about what they’d been through, when, you know, most don’t want to even speak about it in private.

But every time, I have to tell you, I was inspired by their bravery for so many reasons, both because of the courage it takes to tell a story that is a story that is informed by some of the most horrible experiences but also informed by such pain.  But I was also inspired because, again, the courage that it takes to be that voice.

You know, when I would prosecute a case, and the prosecutors here know that, it was — the — I would stand in front of the jury, and I would say, “Kamala Harris for the people.”  And the charging document would not be the name of the victim or survivor versus the defendant, it was the “The People versus.”

Because, you see, in our form of justice, we have rightly said that individual should not be made to fight alone.  A harm against her, against him, against them is a harm against all of us as a society. 

And so, it is with that spirit that we are doing the work we are doing today to convene and to inaugurate this task force, understanding this affects all of us if it affects any one of us. 

And we therefore, all of us, have a responsibility to stand together to support those who have gone through this, but to also recognize they shouldn’t have to be alone fighting on this issue. 

So that’s the spirit with which we convene today and the spirit with which we are doing this work. 

And I will tell you, as Attorney General, many of you know, when I was in California, I prosecuted the first case in the country of an operator of a cyber exploitation website. 

And I’ll never forget — you know, my office was mostly in Sacramento, and we were dealing with a case — if you know California — in another part of the state.  And I flew down to meet with the person who was actually handling the case, to go o- — went through the files to see: Where were we?  What was going on?  What were we going to do about this case?

Because it was, in many ways, a case of first impression — although it wasn’t when we thought about the pathology of what was at play.  When we thought about the — you know, we call it the “MO” — modus operandi.  Right?  When we talked about and thought about how it was being done, what was motivating it, and how it was making that victim and that survivor feel. 

So, yes, it was the first in the nation, but we’d seen that kind of stuff before.  The point was that we needed to update and upgrade ourselves as law enforcement and as the criminal justice system, as a justice system, to recognize where it is now occurring and update our approach to deal with it in all places where it exists in a way that causes harm and pain and injury. 

And so, that website in particular, it — what it did is it let people upload sexually explicit photographs of their former partners — the photographs that were taken and shared with consent in a consensual relationship.  But, of course, what ended up happening is that one of those partners usually in that relationship had — had a grudge or an issue or a motivation to embarrass or to harm, and would allow the photograph to be posted with the explicit intent — certainly with the implicit effect — of trying to embarrass and degrade and hurt and cause pain and attract judgment to that individual. 

Well, in that case, I’m happy to report that the person who ran that website went to prison, because I do believe that there should be consequence for behaviors that harm other human beings.

But this kind of justice is still so rare, because many of our laws have not caught up with the advances in technology.  So, as a United States senator, I introduced legislation to make these acts a federal crime.

And thanks to the recent — and our President, Joe Biden — and the recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, for the first time, cyber exploitation victims can sue their abusers in federal civil court.

And this is progress, yet we still have so much more work to do to protect people from online harassment and abuse, which is why the work of this task force is so important.

Context.  Well, the Internet is an essential part of life in the 21st century.  Can’t get around it.  Can’t get around without it.  And for far too many people — and Sloane told her story — the Internet is a place of fear.

One in three women under the age of 35 report being sexually harassed online.  Over half of the LGBTQ+ people in our country are survivors of severe harassment.

Nearly one in four Asian Americans report being called an offensive name, usually motivated by racism — being called an offensive name online.  And Black people who have been harassed online in our country are three times more likely to be targeted, again, because of their race.

No one should have to endure abuse just because they are attempting to participate in society.

Of course, the impact of this abuse extends beyond the ability to use Internet — the Internet system and the power of the Internet — without fear.  It’s beyond that.  In many cases, cyberstalking have serious mental health consequences for its victims, sometimes leading to self-harm, sometimes leading to suicide.

And we continue to see how some acts of mass violence — the most recent included — have followed expressions of online hate and abuse.

The white supremacist who murdered 10 Black people in Buffalo, New York, was first radicalized, by all accounts, online.

And after the massacre of 19 children — 19 babies — and 2 teachers in Uvalde, it was revealed that the shooter had threatened to kidnap, rape, and kill teenage girls on Instagram.  One of the girls he harassed described the abuse, I quote, as “just how online is.”  Think about that.  Hate has become so common on the Internet that, as a society, it’s kind of becoming normalized, and for users, some might say unavoidable. 

Recent events have also made it clear that we face new threats.  Earlier this week, I met with a group of legal experts about how overturning Roe v. Wade will impact the right to privacy. 

Now, just think about this: In states where abortion is criminalized, an abuser could purchase a woman’s location history through a data broker.  This is a realistic scenario.  If that history shows that she sought an abortion out of state, he could then turn it over to law enforcement in a jurisdiction that has deemed that a crime.  This is a horrifying possibility for that woman. 

So let us be clear: No one should be afraid that an abuser will use their private personal data — or that a person’s private personal data will be used against them.  And all people deserve to use the Internet free from fear.

This task force, then, will tackle a threat that has been far too real for far too many people for far too long.  And the recommendations of this group and the extens- — extended group of experts and those who have been advocates in this space for so long — the collective work — will help modernize the federal government’s response to violence against women and people of all genders.  It will lead to more evidence-informed policies and interventions.  And it will support more federal funding to address online harassment and abuse, including grants to train law enforcement and prosecutors. 

It is incumbent on all of us — government, local law enforcement, and the tech sector — to respond to the task at hand with a sense of urgency. 

So I thank you all for your tireless fight and for your advocacy, for your strength to prevent these harms from happening in the first place and to hold perpetrators accountable.  And the President and I look forward to hearing all of your recommendations. 

Thank you all so very much.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

END                 2:04 P.M. EDT

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Sign up for full access to The HBCU Advocate and to receive our Weekly Newsletter.