Schatz Leads Bipartisan Legislation To Help Domestic Violence Survivors Cut Ties With Abusers, Separate From Shared Wireless Service Plans That Can Be Exploited To Stalk, Control Victims

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) introduced new legislation to help survivors of domestic violence and other crimes cut ties with their abusers and separate from shared wireless service plans, which can be exploited to monitor, stalk, or control victims.

“Giving domestic violence abusers control over their victims’ cell phones is a terrifying reality for many survivors. Right now there is no easy way out for these victims – they’re trapped in by contracts and hefty fees. Our bill helps survivors get out of these shared plans and tries to find more ways to help victims stay connected with their families and support networks,” said Senator Schatz.

“Victims of domestic violence often must share cell phone plans with their abusers. When these survivors are looking to escape, they struggle to fully separate from the abusers who can still control their communications lifeline. Our bipartisan bill would help keep survivors connected as they build a path toward independence,” said Senator Fischer.

“No domestic violence survivor should have to worry that their vital lifeline to critical support services is controlled by their abuser. This bill targets one of the central ways domestic violence perpetrators exercise control and continue their abuse: by cutting off their victims’ ability to communicate and connect with family, friends, and support services. The Safe Connections Act protects the safety and privacy of domestic violence survivors, empowering them to separate from shared phone plans and providing confidentiality when they seek support,” said Senator Blumenthal.

“I’m proud to join my colleagues to introduce the Safe Connections Act to protect domestic abuse survivors and help them cut ties with their abusers. These brave survivors have been through the unimaginable, and deserve the support and resources needed to safely move forward with their lives,” said Senator Scott.

“There is an alarming rise in domestic violence cases in Nevada during the coronavirus pandemic and amid prolonged social isolation. According to the Northern Nevada Regional Intelligence Center, the number of domestic violence cases in the area in 2020 is four times higher than the last four year average,” said Senator Rosen. “This important legislation would require telecommunications services to implement safeguards, such as helping victims and survivors of domestic violence to separate from shared cell phone plans with their abusers. I will continue working in Congress to protect vulnerable Nevadans during this tumultuous time.”

Survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, sexual assault, and human trafficking often face challenges when establishing independence from an abuser. These include financial insecurity and limited access to the communications tools essential to maintaining connections with family, social safety networks, employers, and support services. As survivors seek help and stabilize their lives, the Safe Connections Act would help them stay safe and connected by:

  • Allowing survivors to separate a mobile phone line from any shared plan involving an abuser without penalties or other requirements. This includes lines of any dependents in their care;
  • Requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to initiate a rulemaking proceeding to seek comment on how to help survivors who separate from a shared plan enroll in the Lifeline Program for up to six-months as they become financially stable; and
  • Requiring the FCC to establish rules that would ensure any calls or texts to hotlines do not appear on call logs.

The Safe Connections Act is supported by Access Now, the Clinic to End Tech Abuse at Cornell University, the Hawai‘i State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the International Justice Mission, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Public Knowledge, RAINN, StrongHearts Helpline, Legal Momentum - the Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Domestic Violence Action Center, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and Polaris.

“The Hotline commends Sen. Schatz (D-HI) and Sen. Fischer (R-NE) for introducing the Safe Connections Act of 2021, a bill that, if passed, would make it safer for a survivor of domestic violence to leave an abusive partner. We hear from survivors on the lines every day devastating stories about their partners using their phones and other devices to monitor, intimidate, and stalk them. Digital abuse is an unfortunate reality for so many survivors, including tracking a survivors' movement through location tracking, monitoring call logs, and the difficult process of leaving a shared phone contract when your abusive partner is the primary authorized user. This bill would also allow survivors to safely and efficiently leave a shared phone contract and have access to the Lifeline program for six months, recognizing that survivors rely on their phones for safety but may not be able to afford a new phone line due to financial hardships,” said Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

“Our work with survivors reveals how crucial this bill would be, especially during a pandemic when survivors rely on communications technologies as a lifeline but when those same technologies can expose them to abuse. We gladly support this careful effort to respond to how phones play an essential but complicated role in survivors’ lives,” said Professor Thomas Kadri of the Clinic to End Tech Abuse at Cornell University.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately highlighted another persistent public health crisis -- domestic abuse. Victims of abuse experience significant financial hardship as they seek a way out of their horrific circumstances, often while facing the double threat of physical harm from their abusers in the process. We support this legislation because it protects victims by mitigating the risk of having their location tracked by their abuser, enabling them to separate their mobile service account from their abuser's account while also providing financial support through the Lifeline program to help victims stay connected to their communities,” said Greg Guice, Director of Government Affairs at Public Knowledge.

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