By Caitlin Dewey September 24
(United Nations Broadband Commission for Digital Development)
It may not have intended to, precisely, but the United Nations just took sides in the Internet’s most brutal culture war.
On Thursday, the organization’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development released a damning “world-wide wake-up call” on what it calls “cyber VAWG,” or violence against women and girls. The report concludes that online harassment is “a problem of pandemic proportion” — which, nbd, we’ve all heard before.
But the United Nations then goes on to propose radical, proactive policy changes for both governments and social networks, effectively projecting a whole new vision for how the Internet could work.
Under U.S. law — the law that, not coincidentally, governs most of the world’s largest online platforms — intermediaries such as Twitter and Facebook generally can’t be held responsible for what people do on them. But the United Nations proposes both that social networks proactively police every profile and post, and that government agencies only “license” those who agree to do so.
“The respect for and security of girls and women must at all times be front and center,” the report reads, not only for those “producing and providing the content,” but also everyone with any role in shaping the “technical backbone and enabling environment of our digital society.”
How that would actually work, we don’t know; the report is light on concrete, actionable policy. But it repeatedly suggests both that social networks need to opt-in to stronger anti-harassment regimes and that governments need to enforce them proactively.
[Contrary Internet crybabies, online speech in the U.S. is really free, actually]
At one point toward the end of the paper, the U.N. panel concludes that “political and governmental bodies need to use their licensing prerogative” to better protect human and women’s rights, only granting licenses to “those Telecoms and search engines” that “supervise content and its dissemination.”
This question, of course, mirrors other, larger debates playing out across the culture, including tiffs over academic “trigger warnings” and debates about Reddit’s foggy future. Writing at Breitbart several weeks ago, the conservative columnist Allum Bokhari described a growing social movement that he dubs “cultural libertarianism”: the rejection of any and all limitations on absolute free expression.
It’s no coincidence that the “cultural libertarians” Bokhari cites are all leading figures in Gamergate, just as it’s no coincidence that the U.N. report references Zoe Quinn, the first victim of that movement. Well over a year after Quinn’s harassment became international news, we still haven’t answered these fundamental questions about what values the Internet should protect and who is responsible for it.
This U.N. report gets us no closer, alas: all but its most modest proposals are unfeasible. We can educate people about gender violence or teach “digital citizenship” in schools, but persuading social networks to police everything their users post is next to impossible. And even if it weren’t, there are serious implications for innovation and speech: According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, CDA 230 — the law that exempts online intermediaries from this kind of policing — is basically what allowed modern social networks (and blogs, and comments, and forums, etc.) to come into being.
As reports like this are making increasingly clear, however, these platforms were developed by people who never imagined the struggles that women face online. We’re using tools that weren’t designed for us; they had other people and values and priorities in mind.
Is a reckoning — or at least rebalancing — imminent? The United Nations suggests it has to be. But it certainly won’t look like the model dreamt up in this report. For better or worse, that’s several steps too revolutionary.
In other words, the United Nations believes that online platforms should be (a) generally responsible for the actions of their users and (b) specifically responsible for making sure those people aren’t harassers.
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.