Digital Sticks And Stones

Nov 1, 2015

Anyone who has spent a sufficient amount of time on the Internet, especially in the realms of social media, has had something mean and hurtful said directly to them or about them. I’ve been called things that can’t be put into print here.

Sometimes I shot back in anger. Other times I simply left the conversation while chanting “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” The choice was mine. I had the power to walk away from the keyboard. No one was forcing me to interact with the people who were saying things that I felt were offensive and inappropriate.

It was with those experiences in mind that I read the United Nation’s report “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls: A World-Wide Wake-Up Call”, released last month, with some degree of consternation.

According to the report, “The respect for and security of girls and women must at all times be front and center of those in charge of producing and providing the content, technical backbone and enabling environment of our digital society. Failure to do so will clip the potential of the Internet as an engine for gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

The report further concluded, “Each platform on the Internet needs to have a policy that clearly defines what they consider offensive and inappropriate. Users need to ‘tick’ their consent to respect at all times these polities [sic] and accept liability for violating them. Current policing of content on social media however does not support women against acts of cyber VAWG [violence against women and girls], nor do they represent a commitment to ending violence against women.”

What I think is "offensive and inappropriate" may not be what you think is "offensive and inappropriate."

“Regardless of whether you think those are worthwhile ends, the implications are huge: It’s an attempt to transform the Web from a libertarian free-for-all to some kind of enforced social commons,” wrote columnist Caitlin Dewey in The Washington Post.

In practice, this would mean that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter would have a legal obligation to regulate and police the content posted on their platforms.

Currently, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 provides immunity from liability for website owners for content published by users. What this means is that while publishers such as newspapers can be sued if they publish libelous content about individuals, “interactive computer services” like Facebook and Twitter cannot.

According to the Cyber VAWG report, the U.N. defines violence against women as, “Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

No one should have to endure threats of physical or sexual assault whether online or in real life. Unfortunately, this does happen, which is why we developed a legal system for handling cases involving physical and sexual assault, including threatening to harm another person. Like most developed countries, we also have laws regarding “hate speech”, which is speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation with the express purpose of inciting violence against that group.

One of the primary problems with the U.N. Cyber VAWG report’s recommendations is that it calls for the policing of “offensive and inappropriate” speech. This is too broad. What I think is “offensive and inappropriate” may not be what you think is “offensive and inappropriate”.

I don’t want to live in a world in which Facebook, Twitter, the U.N., some crusading rabble, or me as supreme overlord of the universe are determining what speech is “offensive and inappropriate”. This is a slippery slope that descends into rampant censorship. I want to live in a world of free speech, which has a dark side. Let me give you an example.

Recently, one of the folks I follow on Twitter posted the following: “If I ran Israel, I’d kill every Palestinian man, woman, and child within 3 weeks.”

His posting may have been one of the most hateful calls to violence I’ve ever read on a social media platform. Not only did it openly advocate violence against women and girls, it called for genocide against an entire race of people. I did a quick calculation. There are currently some 1.7 million Palestinians living in Israel and another 4.4 million living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Three weeks is 21 days. To achieve his stated goal, he would need to orchestrate the massacre of 290,476 Palestinians every day. What kind of monster would advocate this course of action?

Rather than spit something hateful right back at him, I responded by telling him that something akin to that had already been attempted in the past and it didn’t turn out so well for humanity. I also included the link to the Wikipedia page for the “Final Solution”, which was the term used by the Nazis for their plan to annihilate the Jewish people.

If we had followed the U.N. Cyber VAWG report’s recommendations, his post would have been removed from Twitter and the poster’s account deactivated. And while the poster’s comment made me both angry and sad, I’d rather live in a world in which his voice was heard loud and clear rather than censored. Why? Because history has a bad habit of repeating itself and censorship was a primary tool for enabling the Nazis rise to power and implementation of the Final Solution.

A world of free speech is ugly and sometimes hateful but a world of rampant censorship is far worse. A world of free speech is not not “an engine for gender equality and women’s empowerment.” It is chock-full of the digital sticks and stones of speech that cannot break my bones but may sometimes hurt me.

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.