UN Broadband Commission Releases Questionable Report On 'Cyber Violence' Against Women

from the wherein-the-problem's-solutions-are-problems-themselves dept

The UN’s Broadband Commission has just released a report on “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls.” That this has been put together by the Broadband Commission rather than something more directly related to either law enforcement or human rights should be the first warning flag. This indicates the UN feels the responsibility for “cyber violence” should be borne by ISPs and social media platforms, rather than those actually committing the acts detailed in the report.

Ken White at Popehat has written a long and thoughtful piece on the report that’s well worth reading, even with his admission that he may cut the authors of the document too much slack. White discusses what’s wrong with the Commission’s aims, using the presupposition that its assertions about “cyber violence” towards women are true. Even granting the Commission this generous benefit of a doubt, there’s still a lot that’s worrying about the Commission’s proposals and assumptions.

Perhaps the biggest concern is that the UN is behind it. While the concept of the United Nations is noble, the execution has been an ongoing disaster. The governing body has been far too willing to humor the whims and predilections of countries whose track records on speech and human rights are generally abysmal. This is the unavoidable outcome of “uniting” disparate nations. Because there’s no way to please everyone, the UN has settled for a grade school-esque “everybody gets a turn” fairness. That leads directly to this sort of thing:

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.

No one should want the UN to take up this battle. Those looking to see free speech respected won’t find much to like about the UN’s involvement. Countries where actual violence is routinely perpetrated against women, along with cultural oppression, won’t be talked into a national change of heart just because the UN has decided to shelter women from online violence. ISPs aren’t going to be receptive to additional directives that require them to more heavily police their users, especially when the targeted content isn’t as easy to recognize and curtail as the report makes it appear.

The Commission’s report also ignores the obvious in its desire to right the internet’s wrongs: laws are already in place to deal with much of the “cyber violence” the commission aims to prevent. The report lists six areas where women are subjected to “cyber violence,” almost all of which are already addressed by criminal and civil statutes.

Surveillance/Tracking (i.e., stalking)
Recruitment (sex trafficking)
Malicious Distribution (defamation, revenge porn, etc.)

This isn’t to say that legal systems already in place are handling the digital version of these criminal and civil violations perfectly. They aren’t. We only need to look at sexting prosecutions to get a general idea of how badly this goes when laws written to serve a different purpose are stretched to address unforeseen modes of behavior.

But the solution isn’t the construction of an entirely new legal framework, especially not one built on the assumption that “cyber violence” is equivalent to physical violence. We’ve similarly seen the disastrous results of laws written solely to address new issues like cyberbullying and revenge porn. The former tends to replace actual harm and malicious intent with highly-subjective measurements. The latter tends to criminalize acts that aren’t revenge porn, thanks to sloppy wording and legislative grandstanding.

There may be some measured steps that could be taken to mitigate the problems the Commission is targeting, but the wording contained in the report strongly suggests a measured approach isn’t what the Commission has in mind.

[R]hetorically, 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.

The report suggests “partnerships” between private industry and governing bodies, something that never works out well. The Commission hesitates to advocate government censorship, but does so disingenuously by suggesting that “voluntary” measures enacted under pressure from multiple governments are actually still voluntary. And it completely ignores the fact that any such systems put into place will be gamed immediately by the people they’re meant to target, along with any number of trolls that game systems simply to game systems.

It also attempts to shoehorn in the unproven claim that video game violence leads to actual violence and does so citing perhaps the worst “source” available — an article that leads off by quoting Lyndon Larouche uncritically.

It is the “New Violence,” as Democratic Presidential pre-candidate Lyndon LaRouche was the first to precisely characterize it at the time. It is the use of Nintendo-style games, and related means, to transform young children and adolescents, as well as law-enforcement personnel into “Samurai”-style programmed killers.

That’s not the quote that makes it into the report. What it does quote is almost innocuous compared to the content surrounding it.

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.

To call this alarmist screed “research” is beyond laughable. Even if you can somehow accept the assertion that violent video games are crafting a generation of “killing zombies,” you’re left with with the author’s other assertions, which veer off into inadvertent satire.

Nintendo of America, Inc.: Manufactures Pokémon, Game-Boys, and equipment for satanic video games.


Hasbro Interactive: Official U.S. distributor of Pokémon (abbreviation for “Pocket Monsters”), the killing game designed for toddlers beginning at 2 and 3 years old; Dungeons and Dragons, the medieval satanic and magic fantasy game; Risk II, a “ruthless quest for world domination”.

The report also quotes a report on harassment of Indian women via WhatsApp (with cited URL actually being a file path on some UN’s employees C: drive). The report itself notes that the study was severely limited and that “no sweeping generalizations should be made.” The Broadband Commission apparently failed to read that part of the report.

The use of WhatsApp instant messaging, for example, has become, according to some reports, the latest harassment tool of choice in countries like India and Malaysia, and increasingly around the world.

Diving into every citation would likely uncover more problems in the assumptions drawn by the Broadband Council. (For instance, the Pew report quoted in the paper conveniently ignores the research center’s finding that men experience online harassment more often than women, although they are less likely to be sexually harassed or stalked.) Even if the sources were impeccable, the Commission’s ultimate goals would still be questionable.

A governing body that grants far too much deference to countries that abuse their own population thinks it can clean up the internet. There are few direct attacks on free speech in the report, but that’s probably more due to the UN’s restricted definition of free speech (“Freedoms of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose…“) than the Commission’s concerns about undue limits on expression.

Even if you firmly agree with the report’s assertion that “cyber violence” disproportionately affects women and that new measures need to be put in place to rein this in, you can’t — in good conscience — applaud the UN’s involvement. This is a governing body that routinely turns a blind eye to physical violence targeting women and allows countries with atrocious human rights records to guide policy decisions. This sort of issue cannot be solved with blanket directives issued by a governing body that is routinely ignored by its member states and whose deference to even the worst “stakeholders” continually undercuts the ideals it claims to promote.

UPDATE: Ken White has written a follow-up piece stating that he was wrong to cut the UN Broadband Commission’s report as much slack as he did the first time around.

First off, he points out how dangerous this could be, considering it’s the Broadband Commission that’s behind this report. As he notes, there are several authoritarian regimes fighting for more control of the internet — which of course means more control of their citizens. A set of internet rules handed down by the UN will be leveraged against their weakest citizens and misused to shut down dissent, no matter how noble the original goal.

He also points out that the quote pulled from the Lyndon Larouche-touting anti-videogame screed almost singlehandedly undercuts the credibility of the entire report. It’s just that bad.

This is the equivalent of submitting a serious proposal to Congress advocating for changes in the federal budget and, for the proposition that the NASA budget should be reduced, linking to sites that claim that the moon landing was faked.

Some may point out it’s a single citation, from which only a few words were pulled. But this seems to indicate there are other media forms the UN would like to control.

One bad citation wouldn’t normally destroy the credibility of an entire report. If any one can, this one does. It’s used to support a drop-in that violent movies and video games are something the UN might want to look at. It is so freakishly inappropriate that I can only imagine four scenarios: (1) there are no sensible people involved in the preparation and approval of the report, (2) any sensible people involved with the report did not read the report any more carefully than I did, (3) the people behind the report believe this Jack Thompson/Tipper Gore/Jack Chick malarkey, or (4) the people behind the report don’t particularly care about the reliability of the sources for their pronouncements.

White also spends more time discussing the Commission’s problematic definition of “cyber violence,” which seems to be about evenly split between things that aren’t actual violence and things that are already criminal acts in most countries. This is where the report is the most dangerous. It’s attempting to leverage vague wording and foregone conclusions to grant the UN increased speech-policing powers — an idea no one should be in a hurry to support.

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Comments on “UN Broadband Commission Releases Questionable Report On 'Cyber Violence' Against Women”

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Anonymous Coward says:

“Some may point out it’s a single citation, from which only a few words were pulled.”

Here’s a little tip off to some fun: really dig into the rest of their citations. Some other folks have, and there’s a staggering amount of false, duplicate, self, non-existent, and even blank, citations in there. I’m actually rather surprised at the surface-level criticism this is getting from some bigger sites.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Its only receiving surface level criticism (at worst) because the people at those sites long ago decided that only women experience “violence” online. This report confirmed it and it was from an “authority” which they could appeal to. There was no need to actually read the report or, actually doing that, check any of the citations. That might entail actually being responsible in the capacity of authority you claim to have, which these people (“professional” journalists and bloggers) are neither authorities nor responsible. Like usual, GamerGate was right all along.

Even Breitbart is more authoritative and responsible than mainstream media. Let that sink in.

Rikuo says:

Wow. The first time I’ve across a site talking about this that doesn’t mention anything about Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn talking at the UN about this, and all about their unsubstantiated claims of death threats (the fact that in all the years these women have been claiming to be receiving threats and so far not one single person has been arrested on charges tells me a lot).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Probably because it has little to do with the matter at hand. Whether or not there has been death threats (which I’m sure there have, just that it’s being played up for effect) is irrelevant to just how draconian and needlessly obtuse this push is.

Honestly, it’s the same nonsense that the Temperance Movement used to get alcohol banned. ‘Oh our men would be so much better behaved if they didn’t have the liquid devil’ and all that.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

(the fact that in all the years these women have been claiming to be receiving threats and so far not one single person has been arrested on charges tells me a lot)

I have no idea whether there were any legitimate threats, but the fact that no arrests have been made does not in any way prove that a crime did not occur.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I have no idea whether there were any legitimate threats, but the fact that no arrests have been made does not in any way prove that a crime did not occur.

True, but the United States functions on the principle of “Innocent until proven guilty”

When there is uncertainty that has not been before courts the default position is that the accused action did not take place until proven otherwise.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

So, there’s a body on the lawn – it’s been beaten badly – but until we know who killed it and they’ve been found guilty it’s not dead?

People have the presumption of innocence.
Crimes can remain unsolved.

In this case there was a crime, but nobody has been charged – for whatever reason.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

You comparison does not hold up.

On the one have you have accusations that a crime was committed with no physical evidence.

On the other hand you have physical evidence a crime may have happened.

In both cases there is reason to investigate. But it is not proof that a crime has been committed. The beaten body may have been a horrible self-inflicted accident (if it was intentional or not self-inflicted it would, of course, be a crime in many states)

The incident without any evidence is even more tenuous in that there is no proof that said even happened beyond their word. In fact we have proof that in at least two instances the people making accusations are willing to false flag or lie about the past to be able to claim victimization. (First we have Brianna Wu claiming posting harassment on her own game http://www.reaxxion.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/B9XBXrBCEAAIxhj.jpg and then we have Anita Sarkeesian canceling talks despite authorities saying the threats were not credible and continuing to act like she risks her life daily http://www.avoiceformen.com/allnews/anita-sarkeesian-feminism-online-harrassment-2/ )

So we have a lack of any evidence events happened and reason enough to doubt that the full truth is being told even if they did happen.

Without proof, why should we believe a crime has happened if the police cannot find anyone to prosecute after a year?

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: zero physical violence

Uh, guys, some RW stuff DID end up happening in many cases and cyberstalking epically sucks. The only reason you’re saying these things is because it hasn’t happened to you yet.

That the UN is trying to do something about it may sound good to some of us but they’re barking up the wrong tree and unlikely to achieve more than a load of right-sounding noises.

Going after the perpetrators is the better approach and we need to centre our responses to online abuse on them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Lol, its just the UN. Noone cares what they say. They have ignored reality for a long time, its like their main source of information is FoxNews.

Average online harrasment:
-hey im a girl
-fuck off noone cares
boom +1 for team harrasment.

Meanwhile real issues like the IS are mostly ignored. Oh Russia wants to stop them? Thats bad because its Russia, IS are suddenly the good guys because they are against communism! Who cares what the average Syrian wants, who cares that every ex-dicatorship is a literal shithole thanks to the US.
Hundreds of kids raped every day? Who cares, someone called a girl a dumb bitch over the internet!!!

Fuck the UN.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Report is even worse than this article covers

Someone dug into the citations. Let me just say that the citations wouldn’t pass the requirements for my old English 101 classes.

There are many sources that don’t exist, sources that aren’t told, only quoted (i.e. plagiarized) — in short, it is hilariously awful.

Give it a read: https://medium.com/@KingFrostFive/citation-games-by-the-united-nations-cyberviolence-e8bb1336c8d1

Anonymous Coward says:

The United States sent out a statement of condemnation about Iran’s appointment to the committees, calling it a farce that a nation with an egregious human rights record could actually contribute anything of value

Iran (and what used to be Syria) are pretty good to women when compared with practically every other nation in the middle east. I think having them on the women’s rights committee may be useful, as they may be able to help promote progress in their portion of the world.

What’s a farce is the US condemning Iran’s seat, while expressing glee that Saudi Arabia is heading the human rights committee.

Anonymous Coward says:

Boy ain’t this one a hoot. Before it’s over with if this should become some sort of international crime requiring enforcement, I wonder if anyone has actually thought of the resulting mess it would bring about?

It’s already to the point of ridiculous that sexting between teens has been pushed to use child porn as the reason, when it’s willful between two kids with no thought of money in mind. Now pile this on top and really watch what happens.

If you’ve not noticed, a lot of the college kids on this PC correct speech get their jollies off harassment. To them it’s not harassment. They are the first gen to grow up with the internet always having been part of their life. To them it’s just a verbal game. A drama play in live performance getting their jollies off if they can jimmy someone’s britches in response. Yet taken by the receiving end, this is harassment.

The same old things are coming up again about how someone else knows better than you how to live your life.

Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) says:

Great Leap Forward for Gender Equality

Buried in a report about victimization of women is a very interesting statistic. By the new definition of violence, 39% of violent offenders against women are female. This shows great progress for women, as violence and victimization are now nearly an equal opportunity sport. Now we need a study on violence toward men to see how equality is progressing on that front.

Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) says:

Don't Fall for Backlash

Just a friendly reminder from reading the comments that just because something is done in a ham-fisted or partially wrong way doesn’t necessarily make it all wrong. Yes some women online are attention whore princesses. Yes sometimes SJWs sound like onion-skinned idiots that go out of their way to find things to be offended at. Yes sometimes women’s movements have persecution complexes. Yes many of the ways women are verbally abused online happen to men too. But that doesn’t mean that shit doesn’t happen to women for sexual reasons and it shouldn’t be stopped.

GamerGate was an excellent example of this. While there’s certainly a general case to be made for corruption in gaming journalism – for reviewers being in bed with game companies (no, usually not literally) – that doesn’t excuse the rather horrifying display of sexism shown by a fair number in the GamerGate movement.

Don’t disregard all of the message just because it’s poorly stated or some of it isn’t right. This is not so much a defense of this report as it is a warning to those who think that “cyber violence” against women isn’t a thing (regardless of whether “violence” is the right word to use here).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Don't Fall for Backlash

“horrifying display of sexism shown by a fair number in the GamerGate movement”

1. GamerGate is not a movement. It is a scandal.

2. Sexism shown by some was never excusable, nor did any sane human attempt to excuse it. What sane humans did was object to the relentless expansion of the DEFINITION of “sexism” such that “sexism” included basically anything the authoritarian SJWs didn’t like (including disagreeing with the authoritarian SJWs).

3. “Cyber-violence” against women occurs less frequently to “cyber-violence” against men, according to the Pew Research Center.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Don't Fall for Backlash

“Sexism shown by some was never excusable, nor did any sane human attempt to excuse it”

Oh, baloney. The “gamergate movement” started off as being pure sexist harassment of the most extreme nature, and that sexism was cheered on by its members.

That later on everyone realized how awful this was and started to try to reframe the whole thing doesn’t change that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Don't Fall for Backlash

Repeating a story doesn’t make it any truer.

Gamergate never got big until the “press” insulted their readers and multiple sites banned all discussion about allegations of conflicts of interest.

Allegations that were found to be true as admitted by the writers they were levied against.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Don't Fall for Backlash

It’s extremely telling that you chose the historical-revisionist route, and in addition didn’t even bother addressing the fact that, online, women are “harassed” less than men are on average.




Check your facts before the facts reduce your precious narrative to ashes.

Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Don't Fall for Backlash

“online, women are “harassed” less than men are on average”

I’ve been wondering about that. Can you provide studies on that? I was hypothesizing that with this new definition of violence men were victims of violence more than women, but that was just an educated guess, and was based on guesstimates of the sum of online and offline “violence” from all sources; my guess was that women were more victimized online.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Don't Fall for Backlash

I’ve been wondering about that. Can you provide studies on that?


Men are more likely to be harassed, women receive are more likely to receive more severe forms, and are more likely to think it is a problem.

Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) says:

Re: Re: Re: Don't Fall for Backlash

It’s interesting to note that it may have started out as some of both. There is a time-honored method of attacking women’s arguments and positions that’s older than the written word: attacking her sexuality. So sexism doesn’t necessarily preclude criticism of ideas, it just makes criticism dumber.

While I may have given a different impression with the way I worded my original post, I view GamerGaters as a mixture of two things: backlash against journalistic impropriety and sexism, and depending on the person it may be more one than the other.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Don't Fall for Backlash

The issue is that people are eager to paint all of gamergate as ONE way.

Are there sexist racist assholes within gamergate? Possibly, even likely. But do those few represent all of gamergate?

I argue the only sweeping statements that can be made about gamergate are those supported by large scale organized efforts that received wide support.

So those things would include charity drives, mocking people who attack them and/or act unethically, support of women and various minorities (NotYourShield and obvious support of people like Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers), a history long and wide of shit talking and posting to be offensive, contacting advertisers to notify them of actions by media that may be viewed unfavorably, and other things.

Wide scale hatred of women (i.e. sexism) is not one of those things.

DNY (profile) says:


Cyberthreat, cyberinsults, cyberslander (when the online communication is substituting for speech) and cyberlibel against women and girls might conceivably be real, but threats, insults, slander and libel are not violence.

Until an abusive boyfriend gets a robot to beat his girlfriend, someone hacks a woman’s car to disable the breaks, or otherwise uses the internet-of-things to commit assault or murder against a human female, I think the issue of “cyberviolence” against women and girls is non-existent. And should things like that occur, I’m not sure how interesting the qualifier “against women and girls” will be in addressing the problem of actual violent crime committed via the internet.

Moonkey says:

I’m going to say this flatly to those in here reading, IF you do not have the mental stability and ability to take criticisms and offensive materials while staying emotionally stable, you should stay away from social media.

This counts for the outside world too.

IF you want to make a difference in the world or be known and have your thoughts heard, you have to train yourself to be strong about these things.

Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) says:

Re: Re:

You say that as if there’s something wrong with not being able to stay emotionally stable while being criticized or offended.

Social psychology lesson: the UN seems to be adopting the word “violence” to describe the social psychology principle of “aggression”: acts which are designed to hurt others. These may be physical acts of aggression known most commonly as “violence”, but may also be harassment, threats, denigration, etc.

The traditional battle lines recognized by social psychology were that men are more likely to employ physical aggression, but what women lack in physical aggression they make up for in psychological and emotional aggression. To put it in layman’s terms, men will leave you with physical scars, women will leave you with emotional scars. But they are all scars, and they all hurt. If they don’t hurt, that’s probably an indication that your senses have grown deadened, which is a recognized psychological disorder (and in extreme cases can indicate psychopathy).

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