Update: Further information suggests I was far too benefit-of-the doubt here, which is what happens when you write fast and when you generally despise some of the people involved. Some of this is still right, but regard the conclusions and characterizations with skepticism. Taking a second look. See, e.g., the fact that they cited this [footnote 118] for the video game discussion I cite below. When I'm wrong I'm wrong. Will revisit.
The United Nations Broadband Commission For Digital Development has released a new report called "Cyber Violence Against Women And Girls: A World-Wide Wake-Up Call." You can find it here.
I have a few comments about it from a free speech advocate's standpoint. I am not going to talk about it from a cultural standpoint. Any post here about gender-based harassment generates bad behavior, as I've long noted. I am aware that there is a political controversy over whether online harassment of women is understated or overstated, whether discussion of such harassment is a feminist plot to steal our precious bodily fluids, and so forth. My view is that online harassment of women is a problem and a legitimate subject of discussion, but I am uninterested in that discussion today. I'm interested in a discussion of the free speech implications of this report. If you are a person who feels that it would be morally wrong not to share your views on those subjects whenever physically possible, and that it would be like unto fascism for even one post not to showcase those views, please go elsewhere to one of the innumerable other venues for that discussion. Thank you.
Any Report From Any UN Body About Speech Warrants Scrutiny
I don't trust the UN on free speech issues. You shouldn't either. In a world where Iran wins a seat on the UN's Commission on the Status of Women, people who care about women's rights should also be skeptical. Pro-censorship forces continually pressure the UN for international laws and norms restricting speech — for instance by demanding laws outlawing blasphemy. Allow me some unabashed American exceptionalism: that's a bad thing. The United States' vigorous approach to protecting free speech and rejecting blasphemy laws is good, and foreign norms that encourage blasphemy laws often used to persecute religious and ethnic minorities are bad.
The UN's response to calls for censorship is mixed. Occasionally sensible officials have recognized the role of censorship (and especially blasphemy laws) in promoting oppression of the weak by the strong. But just as often the UN produces troubling rhetoric like this from the Secretary-General:
"Freedoms of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose," Ban told a news conference.
"When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others' values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way."
The UN also has a pattern of avoiding discussions of censorship that might offend member states and uttering windy statements about how freedom of expression must yield to various sensibilities.
So: I submit that a report by the UN on an issue touching upon freedom of expression deserves close scrutiny. The report does not require special scrutiny because it is about harassment, or the treatment of women: it requires scrutiny primarily because of its source.
Scrutiny Means Actual Scrutiny, Please
But "scrutiny" means actually reading the report and not relying on shrill and partisan summaries and characterizations.
I read the report with an eye towards evaluating what specific policies the Commission is advocating. Taken from that perspective, the report is more respectful of freedom of expression, and less aggressive about potentially censorious policies, than I feared.
Like any UN report — strike that, any report ever — this report contains a lot of nonspecific rhetoric. It also contains very troubling discussions of violence and threats against women, both online and off. They are worth consideration apart from the discussion of free speech issues.
General Concerns About How The Commission Views Free Speech
The report contains rhetorical references to the potential conflict between free speech and policing online conduct:
In the context of cybercrime, stakeholders, including the UN system have noted the need to balance rights. Groups such as APC have cautioned that in the name of spurious measures to “protect” women online we need to be weary of censorship, and that efforts should strive to “balance rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom from violence and harassment for all individuals in constitutional, civil and criminal law.”
That's a general value statement, not a policy. But it implies a non-American understanding of rights. It invokes Censorship Trope Five: balancing speech and other rights. Other countries take an occasionally ad-hoc "balancing" approach to speech — that in any particular circumstance whether speech is protected depends on whether the right to speak is outweighed by some other interest. The American approach recognizes categories of unprotected speech (like true threats) but forbids the government from "balancing" speech outside those categories. So: unsurprisingly, the Commission is taking an international approach to speech rather than the American one I support.
Concerns About the Broadband Commission's Specific Policies
I suspect some people will characterize the report as advocating censorship. That's a misleading characterization. There are UN reports that openly advocate for abandoning American-style free speech norms and "balancing" free expression with various rights. This isn't such a report; it's not advocating for broad speech codes. The report spends most of its time focusing on progress within existing frameworks. But it does have some proposals that trouble me as a free speech advocate.
The report proposes a "multi-level approach" to online threats against women, made up of "sensitization" (that is, changing cultural norms about what conduct is socially acceptable), "safeguards" (working with industry to develop methods of protecting people from online threats) and "sanctions and compliance" — where the action is.
Here's the parts that are worrying.
First, rhetorically, the report advocates a "zero tolerance for violence against women" mantra. I understand and share the anti-violence sentiment, but experience teaches that framing a response to a problem as "zero tolerance" leads to terrible results. That's not a problem with "women's issues," it's a problem with any perceived social ill. Telling people to take a "zero tolerance" approach effectively tells them to suspend critical judgment when addressing a problem. It doesn't lead to treating a problem seriously; it leads to treating a problem anxiously. When applied to something as complicated as the internet, that's potentially disastrous.
Second, the report advocates building relationships with private companies and helping them to develop methods to deter, stop, and report online threats. That's fine; private companies are private and are not bound by the First Amendment. Twitter is no more bound to tolerate online douchebaggery than Nordstrom is to let me shop naked. But the report suggests that the Commission (as one would expect) doesn't really grok private industry. It seems to envision a partnership of mutual values, as opposed to a partnership that persuades private industry that it is in their economic interest to prevent online threats and harassment. More alarmingly, the report seems to advocate government regulations requiring online platforms to take particular approaches to harassment prevention. The devil there could be in the details: regulations could easily amount to content-based censorship.
Third, I believe the report does not sufficiently consider how the industry measures it advocates can be used to suppress speech, including (perhaps even especially) women's speech. The call for more transparency in how online platforms implement anti-harassment programs is sensible. But nobody ever build an automatic system that internet users can't manipulate. Anti-harassment protocols will always be used disingenuously. That doesn't mean industry shouldn't try; it means there should be more critical thinking about whether they will help or hurt. I'm particularly concerned about pushing industry to unmask anonymous speakers more easily, a terrible idea that I think will more promote harassment than prevent it. The report refers approvingly to some such measures without, I think, adequate attention to their risks to free expression and to safety.
Fourth, the report makes gratuitous and controversial claims about the dangerousness of expression. Specifically, it is receptive (credulously, I submit) to the notion that there's a causal relationship between video game and movie violence and real-world violence:
Core roots of mainstreaming violence. There is widespread representation of VAWG in mainstream culture, including in contemporary and popular music, movies, the gaming industry and the
general portrayal of women in popular media. Recent research on how violent video games are turning children, mostly boys, into ‘killing zombies’ are also a part of mainstreaming violence. And while the presentation and analysis of this research is beyond the scope of this paper, the links to the core roots of the problem are very much in evidence and cannot be overlooked.
I'm not saying that proposition has no evidence supporting it, but at a minimum the evidence is controversial and subject to question. It's troubling that a UN report would present such a one-sided and frankly alarmist view of an issue so directly connected to speech.
Fifth, in reviewing various responses to online harassment, the report is insufficiently focused on the distinction between plausible laws and implausible laws, noting them both approvingly. But all laws are not alike. For instance, the report approvingly cites "revenge porn" laws. But some such laws are so badly drafted that their drafters have conceded defeat. In citing authorities, the report does not attempt to distinguish between advocates of revenge porn laws who attempt to frame laws that will pass constitutional muster and advocates who are effectively seeking to change legal and constitutional norms to accommodate their revenge porn laws. The distinction is meaningful, and the report's uncritical approach to content-based censorship proposals concerns me. Even when it appears to be rhetorical rather than substantive (like the introduction's puzzling reference to "blasphemous libel" as a form of violence against women), it's a danger sign.
The report is not the orgy of censorship that ideological enemies will claim. It's a thoughtful approach to a serious problem. But careful examination of any resulting policies is warranted.
Postscript: Scott Greenfield not unreasonably asks how the Commission defines violence or threats against women. I don't think it seriously attempts to do so. It lists some undefined subcategories of conduct that can be violence. This would be more of a concern to me if the report proposed specific laws against undefined violence. Once the Commission attempts a definition, or offers a specific policy that requires a definition, I'll critique it.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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