Legal restrictions on content are not helpful - Discussions around feminism, sexuality, technology and violence
APC’s Women’s Rights Programme convened a meeting on feminism, sexuality, technology and violence at Rutgers University Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights in the United States in November. The three-day meeting ranged from setting out definitions to practical concerns and future collaboration. The meeting grew out of the Exploratory Research Online (EROTICS) undertaken in 2008 with research projects in five countries. Phase 2 of this project included a survey of sexual rights activists about their online experiences. Many were impressed to hear that 98% of sexuality rights activists who completed the survey said that the internet was critical to their work. However, over half reported receiving threats online and 27% said that they had stopped some of their work online in response. This demonstrates a truly chilling effect and the need for sexuality rights activists to understand how to protect themselves and their organizations online. This is one reason why APC arranged this meeting.
Women present described taking steps to prevent being “d0xxed”, having one’s personal information exposed in a systematic and threatening way. Threats from individuals who may seek to intimidate others or provoke others to violence are not the only worries. Since the meeting, Scott Long has spelled out how Facebook inadvertently jeopardizes users who may be identified as gay through that platform, which is easily surveyed by governments including in places where same-sex sexual activity is criminalized or used to harass people. This is only one kind of surveillance of people deemed to be subversive; for example, surveillance of political groups is far more widespread than those advocating for sexuality rights. Quinn Norton shared advice about how to evaluate which activities may be more or less notable to surveyors and made recommendations for privacy and security for activists and for writers to protect their sources. These included turning off Java in your browsers, using encrypted chat (like Crypto.cat) and not using photos but instead screenshots of pictures so that metadata will not reveal the time and location where the photo was taken. The discussion was timely for privacy advocates: the United Nations is deliberating over a Resolution on Privacy in the Digital Age.
Twitterati present used the hashtag #eroticscon, so everyone can read the summary of the discussion. The discussion has been recorded on Storify in three parts, one for each day. The first day of the meeting was devoted to clarifying terms and the participants’ stances, including what is meant by the terms incitement and hate speech, as well as whether online violence is treated differently from offline violence, and whether it should be. Discussion on the second day identified contentious issues in the United States, including varying access to information and technology broken down along lines of class and race, the use of anti-trafficking initiatives against sex workers, problems resulting from abstinence-only sex education, responses to sexual violence, religious freedom being used to justify denying insurance coverage of birth control prescriptions, criminalization of youths’ sexual activity, and the list went on. It was clear that the US is not a haven where information is free, if you are looking for information about sexuality, and that limits on information affect youth and people with fewer resources, which in the US frequently correlates with people of colour and minorities.
The final day focused on ways forward, including using examples of gender-based violence online to explain that this happens and how frequently it happens to people who may otherwise not see it. While online speech that is overtly hostile to women, or any other group, is not per se violence, when such sentiments are widespread and overtly stated (and in some parts of the internet, they are), this can culminate in a situation that is conducive to violence, both physical and online in non-physical settings. An example of the intersection of online and offline use of information to hurt people is outing transgender women to their employers and others by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). Another was the sharing of sexual content without consent of the parties involved, more colloquially called “revenge porn”, which one response has been APC’s celebrated Take Back the Tech (TBTT) campaign, for which this year’s theme is public versus private. A few years ago, TBTT campaigned for people not to forward violence, both in the form of sexual content shared without consent and recordings of physical violence.
Overall, it was agreed that legal restrictions on content are not helpful because they are often used in unhelpful ways (consider the way restricting pornography has limited access to information about breast cancer) and, as others have written, technology cannot solve social problems but can be used as a tool to improve situations and can simultaneously exaggerate or amplify problems.
The US location of the meeting prompted long discussions about US-based corporations that govern the internet and home-based activism that has considerable influence over internet governance. Therefore, mobilizing US-based activists on privacy, technology and sexual rights was seen as critical. Attendees agreed that while privacy issues are important to sexuality and rights activists, technical issues are not understood by all. And among people promoting privacy and technology, issues of sexual rights were recognized as an issue, but all agreed that more communication between these two groups could lead to better understanding and promote collaboration.