[EDITORIAL] Recognition of online GBV in international law: the highs and lows

Internet Governance Forum, 2009 at Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt


My first Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was in 2009 in Sharm el Sheik. Sitting in a workshop on ‘Content regulation, surveillance and sexuality rights – privacy, agency and security’ (the many-worded title itself is telling!) I wondered, where were all my people? Apart from my colleagues and allies from Association for Progressive Communication (APC) and its community, I didn’t know anyone. The IGF was far removed from the regional and global spaces I was used to where I would at least know people through association, or through being exposed to their work.


I wondered, where were all my people?


I was also struck by how many workshops there were that focused on child protection online. The internet, it seemed to me at the time, was about pornography, something called ‘ipv6’ and ‘openness’ – which meant something completely different to me then. My outsider position was made even more stressful because I had, in the months prior to the IGF, participated in three regional workshops with women’s rights organisations in which we interrogated the relationship between women’s rights and technology, through the lens of violence against women. An important part of this work was to show why the internet and other ICTs mattered for the realisation of women’s rights, and why the women’s rights and feminist movement were key actors in the conversations around this – including from the perspective of governance.


An important part of this work was to show why the internet and other ICTs mattered for the realisation of women’s rights, and why the women’s rights and feminist movement were key actors in the conversations around this – including from the perspective of governance.


But here I was, a stranger in a strange land: trying to understand content regulation, surveillance, sexuality, privacy, agency and security – all in 90 minutes! The questions that had been thrown at me over the past months loomed:



  • "how do we justify putting energy and resources into technology and violence when women face ‘real’ violence every day?"

  • "On the one hand we’re saying women must use technology, but on the other, you’re saying it’s dangerous – this doesn’t make sense", and

  • "women barely have access to technology, is this really an issue for us?"


Fast-forward 9 years, and while the questions remain relevant, I am not a stranger in the halls of internet governance anymore because many of my people are there. We’re there talking about how menstruation apps use our data, about consent, about gendered surveillance, about bodies as data, about online gender-based violence (GBV), online abuse, online harassment, cyber violence against women and girls and the many other terminologies used to refer to the violence and harm experiences by people online because of their gender identities and expression.


And it is for this reason, that this edition of GenderIT is significant. It comes at a moment in which the ongoing work for almost a decade on online gender-based violence by feminist and women’s rights activists is receiving much more formal recognition in policy development; when conversations about online GBV have moved from a peripheral discussion in both the women’s rights and internet rights communities to occupying a central space in conversations about a free and open internet.


This edition of GenderIT is significant. It comes at a moment in which the work on online gender based-violence by feminist and women’s rights activists is receiving much more formal recognition in policy development.


It comes after years of trying to find the language to describe what was happening. Conversations within APC about "the intersections of violence against women and information and communication technologies", which developed into terminologies such as technology related violence against women (VAW) and online GBV. Of convincing our allies that work to counter online GBV was part of the work of ensuring freedom of expression, not against it. Of developing our own analysis, with our partners to highlight the experience of people in the global south in ways that emphasise how multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination have particular impacts and require responses that consider context.


So this is a moment to reflect on the policy gains in relation to an area of work that the APC Women's Rights Programme (APC WRP) has focused on for more than a decade. To reflect on the long, frustrating, up and down journey of work to effect change in policy for an issue that, a decade ago, didn’t even have the language to describe it.


Timeline:

2011: Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, Frank La Rue’s report to the Human Rights Council (HRC) which described the internet as “acting as a catalyst for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression” and through this “facilitating the realisation of a range of other human rights .


2012: Human Rights Council resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, which affirmed that the same rights people have offline must also be protected online.


2013: The Commission on the Status of Women outcome document for the first time called on states to: “develop mechanisms to combat the use of information and communications technology and social media to perpetrate violence against women and girls, including … emerging forms of violence, such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying and privacy violations that compromise the safety of women and girls”.


2013: UN Working Groups on Discrimination Against Women in Law and Practice’s thematic report highlighted the risk of harassment faced by women who engage in public debate through the internet and, significantly, the safety that anonymity it provides for those who face discrimination due to their sexual orientation, allowings them to “freely speak out, establish virtual communities and participate in public debates”.


2013: The UN General Assembly resolution on protecting women human rights defenders that highlighted “…information-technology related violations, abuses, discrimination and violence against women, including women human rights defenders, such as online harassment, cyberstalking, violation of privacy, censorship and the hacking of e-mail accounts, mobile phones and other electronic devices, with a view to discrediting them and/or inciting other violations and abuses against them, are a growing concern and can be a manifestation of systemic gender-based discrimination, requiring effective responses compliant with human rights”.


The hugely successful 2013 #FBRape campaign of which APC WRP and the Take back the tech campaign were part, raised global awareness about Facebook pages and profiles that condoned and promoted rape and other forms of violence against women that was categorised as ‘humour’ according to the platforms’ policies. This global conversation generated unprecedented attention on women’s experiences online. The APC WRP network and their extended partners ensured that perspectives from the global south were included in these conversations.


In 2014, TBTT launched the ‘What are you doing about technology-related violence against women’ campaign. Campaigners from around the world rated FaceBook, YouTube and Twitter in terms of their responses to online violence against women and asked them to take a clear stand against violence against women on their platforms in their Terms of Service agreements.


2015: Human Rights Council resolution on accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women recognised that domestic violence can include acts such as cyberbulling and cyberstalking. This resolution was particularly significant as it’s articulation of cyberstalking as being part of a pattern of domestic violence, explicitly reinforces the framing of online GBV as being part of the continuum of violence against women, and such is already part of state responsibility to prevent and address.


2016: The UN General Assembly's resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age recognised that while all individuals may experience violations and abuses of the right to privacy, women, children and others who are vulnerable and marginalised, are particularly affected by such violations and abuses. It calls on all states to further develop or maintain preventive measures and remedies for such violations and abuses. The HRC reaffirmed this language with its own resolution on the same topic in March 2017.


Threats to privacy and the disclosure of personal information, such as the malicious and non-consensual distribution of private sexual content through ICTs, can particularly subject women of diverse sexualities and gender identities to significant threats, including violence, harassment, intimidation and silencing both in the offline and online contexts.


2017: The Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective highlighted that online violence against women must be dealt with in the broader context of offline gender discrimination and violence and that states should enact adequate legislative measures and ensure appropriate responses to address the phenomenon of violence against women online, including through investigation of and action against perpetrators, the provision of redress and reparations to victims, and training on the application of international human rights norms and standards for law enforcement and the judiciary. Significantly (para 60) it states that any measures to eliminate online violence against women must comply with international human rights law, including the criteria for permissible restrictions to freedom of expression provided under article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


It notes various approaches states are taking, but calls states, law enforcement agencies and courts out for "failing to take appropriate action in situations of online violence against women, or are using such laws as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression”. There was also a strong emphasis that efforts to address online violence against women must be consistent with Article 19(3) of the ICCPR)


2017: Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) General Recommendation 35 which makes extensive reference to online gender-based violence (despite not using this actual terminology) including (p20): “Gender-based violence against women occurs in all spaces and spheres of human interaction, whether public or private. These include the family, the community, the public spaces, the workplace, leisure, politics, sport, health services, educational settings and their redefinition through technology-mediated environments, such as contemporary forms of violence occurring in the internet and digital spaces. In all these settings, gender-based violence against women can result from acts or omissions of State or non-State actors, acting territorially or extraterritorially, including extraterritorial military action of States, individually or as members of international or intergovernmental organizations or coalition, or extraterritorial actions by private corporations”.


And now, in 2018, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has released on 14 June 2018, the thematic report which focuses on online gender-based violence. This report states - "In today’s digital age, the Internet and ICT are rapidly creating new social digital spaces and transforming how individuals meet, communicate and interact, and by this more generally, reshape society as a whole. This development is especially critical for new generations of girls and boys, who are starting their lives extensively using new technologies to mediate in their relationships, affecting all aspects of their lives." The report also reflects the increasing number of reports on online GBV and technology facilitated violence from various contexts - "Despite the benefits and empowering potential of the Internet and ICT, women and girls across the word have increasingly voiced their concern at harmful, sexist, misogynistic and violent content and behaviour online. It is therefore important to acknowledge that the Internet is being used in a broader environment of widespread and systemic structural discrimination and gender-based violence against women and girls, which frame their access to and use of the Internet and other ICT. Emerging forms of ICT have facilitated new types of gender-based violence and gender inequality in access to technologies, which hinder women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of their human rights and their ability to achieve gender equality."


What lies ahead

The Human Rights Council of the United Nations is hardly the only avenue for tackling the phenomenon of gender inequality, discrimination and gender-based violence online. There are campaigns, national and regional platforms, movements and hashtags. The changes in international law and policy are important and productive if we can push these towards working for change at various levels - local, national and international. The current momentum in these spaces where online GBV is finally being taken seriously should be pushed towards future steps we need to take:



  1. The link between global policies, resolutions and national-level response in terms of developing national legislation and policies that respond to harmful content, and that ensure that this response is not an over-extension of the power of the State (over speech and association, especially) but is proportionate, necessary and legitimate

  2. That the HRC can play an effective role in ensuring that businesses respect human rights, especially internet intermediaries that have to protect rights online, have transparent processes for responding to complaints, and so on

  3. That we bring forward voices that have not been heard in the current discussions around online GBV and technology facilitated violence. Especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, trans gender, inter sex(LGBQTI), members of communities and groups that are facing racism, casteism, exclusion and discrimination of various kinds. And that these voices change and push the discussion around rights online to different levels.

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