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Two women, smiling
Swathi Ramprasad (left) and
Niharika Vattikonda

As members of the Duke Cyber Policy and Gender Violence Initiative, we research and propose local, state, and federal policies that can provide better technological protections for survivors of gender violence. We’ve previously researched stalkerware and proposed reforms to North Carolina’s Address Confidentiality Program, and we’re always looking to learn more about legislation that can respond to current and emerging technologies to better design protections for survivors. The Safe Connections Act does just that.

A few weeks ago, Professor David Hoffman, our faculty advisor, invited members of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s (D-HI) staff to speak with us about the Safe Connections Act, which is scheduled to be introduced in the Senate later this year. The Safe Connections Act would expand protections for survivors who are seeking to leave a shared family phone plan that is controlled by an abuser. We were impressed by the legislation and the many ways in which the bill will offer strong, practical safeguards for survivors of domestic violence. The Safe Connections Act provides phone plan subsidies for survivors, removes penalties when survivors seek to break with a family phone plan, and requires telecom providers to remove calls to crisis response centers, hotlines and more from recorded call logs.

During our conversations with Schatz’s staff as well as staff from U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster’s office (D-NH), our team learned more about these provisions and how the legislation can leverage Congressional support and FCC authority to expand protections for survivors. We reached out to Nisha Williams, legal director at the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCCADV) to talk further. In our conversation, Williams noted that the difficulty of breaking from shared cell phone plans creates significant risk for survivors of domestic violence and that the Safe Connections Act is necessary to provide an opportunity for survivors to seek help.

Through our involvement in the Duke research-oriented Cyber Policy and Gender Violence Initiative, we wanted to use our platform to discuss Schatz’s proposal and explain why these solutions are crucial for survivors’ safety. This could be a life-saving reform, and we hope to continue building further support for the Safe Connections Act moving forward.

We wrote this blog post summarizing what we have learned from the Safe Connections Act, our conversations with legislative staff, and input from the NCCADV. But it’s just the first step to make these proposals possible.

We want to understand how the Safe Connections Act will take effect—how the legislation will impact survivors, their families, and telecom providers that are changing up their services. We will continue to work with and learn from legislative staff and our community members so that we can continue to advocate for the Safe Connections Act. We’re looking forward to advocating for future legislative solutions, such as the Safe Connections Act, that expand digital protections for survivors of gender violence. We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to comment on such an important piece of legislation and work with Congressional staff and leaders in the tech policy space.

We hope that others will join and partner with us as we continue our work.

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Swathi Ramprasad is a Duke senior double-majoring in Computer Science and Public Policy. Niharika Vattikonda is a junior double-majoring in Business Administration and Economics with a Science and Society certificate through the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke. Both are members of the Duke Cyber Policy and Gender Violence Initiative.

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