Several U.S. senators introduced new legislation today that would allow survivors of domestic violence and other crimes to separate from their abusers’ shared cell phone plans.
The bill, known as the Safe Connections Act, is co-authored by U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and aims to “prevent and respond to the misuse of communications services that facilitates domestic violence and other crimes.”
“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,” Schatz said in a statement announcing the bill.
The bill’s text notes that domestic violence survivors are often cut off from friends and family members, and their means of communication are controlled by their abusers. It’s easy for an abuser to look at call and text records at the end of the phone bill and recognize who their victim is talking to. It’s also common for abusers to exploit GPS and other cell phone-tracking technologies to monitor, stalk, or control victims. The Share My Location feature on iPhones, for instance, can be used by an abuser to keep tabs on where their victim is at all times.
Those issues are amplified when the abuser is the primary account holder on a cell phone plan. Normally, cell phone providers do not allow transfer of line ownership or to remove a line without the account holder’s permission. T-Mobile describes what the process can entail on its website. It’s a common policy for wireless carriers, but one that makes it difficult for victims to cut ties with their abusers.
“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,” Sen. Rosen said in a statement.
The Safe Connections Act would help break down this and other common barriers that survivors of domestic violence (as well as dating violence, stalking, sexual assault, and human trafficking) face when trying to establish social and financial independence from an abuser.
According to the bill’s authors, the act would would make it possible for those individuals to separate a mobile phone line from any shared plan involving an abuser without penalties or other requirements, including any dependents; require the FCC to help those individuals who separate from a shared plan enroll in the Lifeline Program for up to six months as they become financially stable; and require the FCC to establish rules that any calls or text to abuse hotlines do not appear on call logs.
Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, commended the bill’s authors, saying the legislation 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,” Ray-Jones said in a statement to press.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the number of calls the organization received during April 2020, the second month of the pandemic, rose 15% compared to April 2019. Roughly 10% of all contacts said covid-19 had made their situation worse, and during the first 60 days of the pandemic there was a 9% overall increase in calls. (The NDVH has a full report available here.) Even though this data was taken nearly a year ago, it’s likely that there are many more people experiencing an increase of abuse due to the lockdowns put in place because of the pandemic—and this bill is just one of many steps in helping get these individuals to safety.