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.
: 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.