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Federal proposals could help domestic violence victims protect phone data

Experts say the proposed rules could play a crucial role in combatting tech abuse, which can include tracking people, sending threatening messages or demanding their passwords.
A hearing room at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington in 2017.
A Federal Communications Commission hearing room in Washington, D.C. A new set of rules outlines how the government could implement the Safe Connections Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in December. Jacquelyn Martin / AP file

New rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission could make it easier for victims of domestic violence to keep their phone data out of the hands of their abusers and maintain connections to friends, family and advocates who can offer help.

The proposed rules, released earlier this month, outline how the government could implement the Safe Connections Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in December.

The new set of rules include requiring mobile service providers to separate a victim's phone line from the plan they share with an abuser within two days of receiving a request to do so. Other rules involve requiring service providers to omit records of calls or texts to certain hotlines from records that an abuser could access, and provide up to six months' worth of financial assistance for phone and internet bills for those who need it.

Domestic violence prevention advocates say the proposals could play a crucial role in combatting what the National Domestic Violence Hotline calls "tech abuse," which can include looking through someone's phone, demanding their passwords, using any kind of technology to track them and sending threatening messages.

"Tech abuse essentially is another tool, another modality, to impose power and control," said Toshira Monroe, deputy director of My Sister's Place, a Washington, D.C.-based shelter and advocacy organization serving victims of domestic violence.

Monroe, who met with FCC officials prior to the release of the proposals to discuss survivors' needs, said that the nature of tech abuse makes it hard to escape.

"You can be across the country and still harm someone," she said.

A 2014 National Network to End Domestic Violence report found that 97% of officials who represent domestic violence and sexual assault programs said that "victims who seek their services are being harassed, monitored, and threatened by offenders misusing technology."

But access to phones, computers and social media is also crucial to many tasks on survivors' to-do lists when they are in the process of leaving an abuser — including maintaining connections to family and friends, applying for public benefits, jobs and housing, and accessing medical care, according to testimony submitted by the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence.

"That phone is their lifeline to the people that are helping them," Monroe said.

Eva PenzeyMoog, author of "Design for Safety" and founder of the Inclusive Safety Project, an initiative aimed at raising awareness about the prevalence of tech abuse, said cellphones are "incredibly powerful ... as a vector of control for abusers."

By taking care of some of the administrative tasks survivors have to face when they leave abusers, the FCC proposals could help survivors regain some control over their digital lives, said PenzeyMoog, who did not work with the FCC on the proposals.

"The issue of continued surveillance through this data after a survivor has left is really invaluable to an abuser," she said. "Things like this really are a life and death issue."

The FCC is also seeking input on the proposals from domestic violence survivors and prevention advocates.

The public can comment on the proposals through the agency's electronic comment filing system or through the Federal Register, the journal of the federal government, when it is published there.

PenzeyMoog said the FCC's approach to include survivors in the formulation process of how to implement the new law is crucial.

Her "framework for inclusive safety," which offers a roadmap for how technology designers consider their products could be abused, starts with a recommendation to interview domestic violence survivors in order to understand how they have experienced tech abuse in different forms.

"It's just so important to get their firsthand perspective as opposed to trying to imagine what it might be like," she said.

More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking from a partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. LGBTQ people also experience high rates of domestic violence, according to a 2016 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

The FCC will review the public's input after the 30-day public comment period, and at least three of its five commissioners must support a proposal for it to be adopted, according to an agency spokesperson.

The Safe Connections Act requires the agency adopt implementation rules by June 2024, the FCC spokesperson said.  

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or the threat of domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or go to for anonymous, confidential online chats, available in English and Spanish. Individual states often have their own domestic violence hotlines as well.

Advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline field calls from both survivors of domestic violence as well as individuals who are concerned that they may be abusive toward their partners.