A new U.N. report on cyber violence against women has set off another battle over free speech online

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Women have been harassed on the Internet pretty much since the dawn of the consumer Internet itself, but over the past year Gamergate has thrust the topic of how women are treated online front and center.


This turn in the limelight culminated last week in a 60-page report from the United Nations’ Broadband Commission for Digital Development declaring that the world needs a “wakeup call" when it comes to how women are treated online. According to the report, cyber-violence against women and girls is "emerging as a global problem with serious implications for societies and economies around the world."

While the U.N. is right to call attention to the harassment women face online, the report is also evidence of the lack of urgency where women’s online safety is concerned. The report is full of typos, incorrect footnotes, and footnotes that were never filled in at all. It embarrassingly cites a fringe magazine article from 2000 as evidence that "violent video games are turning children, mostly boys, into ‘killing zombies.'" Worse, it lacks a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the problems women face online as well as actionable suggestions for how to fix them.


Take, for example, this incredibly broad definition the U.N. offers for “cyber violence against women and girls":

Cyber VAWG includes hate speech (publishing a blasphemous libel), hacking (intercepting private communications), identity theft, online stalking (criminal harassment) and uttering threats. It can entail convincing a target to end their lives (counselling suicide or advocating genocide). The Internet also facilitates other forms of violence against girls and women including trafficking and sex trade. Not only does commercialized sex on the Internet drive the demand for the sex industry overall, it also allows traffickers to use the legal aspects of commercial sex on the Internet as a cover for illegal activities. Some of the main uses of the Internet by traffickers include: advertising sex, soliciting victims on social media, exchanging money through online money transfer services, and organizing many of the logistical operations involved in transporting victims.

Porn! Identity theft! Stalking! Under the umbrella of "Cyber VAWG," the U.N. lumps together many vastly different issues, all solvable with vague prescriptions for more education about online harassment and laws that punish people who put such content online. The latter boils down to what Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post called a "dangerous vision for the future of the Web." The report advises Internet platforms to keep the "security of girls and women… front and center," saying failure to do so "will clip the potential of the Internet as an engine for gender equality and women’s empowerment."

"It’s an attempt to transform the Web from a libertarian free-for-all to some kind of enforced social commons," wrote Dewey. TechCrunch quickly published an editorial from Arthur Chu, inspired by the report, that asked President Obama to dismantle Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that protects publishers from what commenters say on their platforms, a law that the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls "the most important law for protecting Internet speech."


Section 230, which was passed in 1996, was dreamed up before terms like "doxing" and "swatting" existed in our cultural lexicon. Chu argues that a law initially packaged as helping to clean up the web has instead allowed the Internet's meanest, darkest corners to thrive, creating an Internet where only white, male early adopters truly belong.

"The Internet is a fundamentally 'hostile work environment' for women and minorities who spend time online, but there’s no entity who can be held responsible for it," he writes. Section 230, he argues, may protect the existence of sites like Facebook and Twitter, but at the cost of ignoring that they "are excellent tools for stalking, harassment, defamation and all manner of harm, that lives have been lost, careers destroyed, money thrown down the drain because of unaccountable users using unaccountable platforms."


Unlike the U.N. report, which calls for an undefined set of new laws, Chu calls instead for Section 230 to be altogether repealed.

Others shot back that breaking down the protections of Section 230 won't end online harassment.


"Section 230 protects every one of us with a blog or web site directly," the lawyer and free speech blogger Ken White wrote in a takedown of Chu's piece. The result, he argues, would be a scary, censored Internet.

The U.N. report goes astray in other areas, raising an eyebrow, for example, at consensual sexting, a suspect behavior because "there is a gendered expectation for girls to provide nude images that draws on already existing social norms and scripts about heterosexuality, male entitlement and female attractiveness." This seems ill-considered given that teens are already getting criminal sentences for sending each other photos of themselves, which is the sort of outcome we'd like to see the UN call out as ludicrous.


(The U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.)

Harassment against women is not an easy problem to solve. The report itself notes that crimes like cyber harassment that disproportionately affect women often require decades of tragedy before they are taken seriously. Legal experts like Danielle Citron have said that cyber harassment is analogous to domestic abuse, and that legal authorities are dragging their feet in the same way in recognizing it. Until the 1970s, both judges and police officers still typically viewed a man beating his wife as a trivial offense. Domestic violence cases rarely went to court. Usually a cop would just show up at a scene and tell a woman to calm down. Both tech companies and governments have only recently begun to give revenge porn real attention, many of them only after Hollywood sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair after her nudes showed up online as part of “The Fappening."


How do you rid the Internet of harassment while at the same time protecting freedom of speech online? It's the question at the heart of the turmoil that tore Reddit apart earlier this year: is free speech simply the right to say anything you want to anyone you want or is it also predicated on freedom from harassment, or a right to feel safe? (Reddit executives ultimately decided on a bizarre and controversial compromise, placing the site's most offending content behind walls to allow users to more easily avert their eyes.)

These are the complicated questions that the U.N.'s report merely hints at. That the U.N. addressed what it describes as a "pandemic" affecting 73 percent of women with an overly vague, error-ridden report speaks to the uphill battle that we face in making the Internet a more welcoming place for women. Cyber violence against women remains opaque — something we've acknowledged as a problem, but one we don't seem to know how to stop.

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