On May 21 more than a hundred organisations lead by Women, Action & the Media, the journalist Soraya Chemaly, and The Everyday Sexism Project started a campaign to Take action to end gender-based violence on Facebook. Within a week, Facebook accepted weaknesses and lapses in implementing their policies and their own community standards and committed to take steps to improve their content policy in identifying and removal of gender-based violent content on their platform. The APC’s Women’s Rights Programme and the Take Back the Tech! campaign celebrated this unprecented success along with other signatories and supporters of the Open letter to Facebook.
The “but” factor
But not all advocates of freedom on expression online celebrated with us. In an article published on May 30, Jillian York, a director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) contends that Facebook should not be in the business of censoring content even if it is hate speech.
This is not a new debate. It is a debate that feminists, who care deeply about freedom of expression, have faced around issues of misogyny and gender-based violent content. What is new is how these arguments play out online. What is crystal clear to those of us who are backing this campaign is that this is not a call to counter the right of users to free expression. The network of women’s organisations behind this action understand that internet freedoms are critical to asserting women’s rights and are staunch advocates of freedom of expression online and offline.
But even this right is not absolute – it is subject to other rights and laws as the Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression Frank La Rue identifies in his report:
“Indeed, the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The latter provides that:
(a) Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference;
(b) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice;
c) The e be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(d) for respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(e) for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.” (1)
What are provided for with respect to gender-based hate speech in laws? York asserts that while most of the speech flagged by the campaign is “abhorrent and offensive”, these are already protected by law. On the contrary, part of the problem is that gender-based hate speech is typically not included in definitions of and legislation on hate speech. Here’s a Facebook example cited in an Australian legal journal:
“Another relatively recent example of conduct that might be said to involve vilification on the basis of gender was a Facebook page set up by some University of Sydney students entitled ‘Define Statutory’ and defined as ‘pro-rape’. The page, subsequently removed from Facebook, was variously described as ‘inciting people to sexual violence’ and ‘grooming perpetrators of sexual violence’. This would appear to satisfy all the requirements of hate speech, yet because of the absence of gender as a specified ground in the vilification provisions, could not, as the law currently stands, be prosecuted in any Australian jurisdiction.” (2)
The author examined the absence of legal regulation of gendered hate speech in Australia and argues that to address the problem of gendered hate speech, we need to identify what it is. This is precisely what the campaign has done – identified gender-based violent content on Facebook pages and called attention to the company’s inconsistencies in adhering to its own policies and community standards.
Many, including York, liken Facebook to a new town square or a public space. I disagree. Facebook is not a public plaza. It is a defined online platform with set rules for membership, community standards, and more. It is a business entity and accountable to its board and laws where it operates its businesses. Ultimately, it is Facebook who must decide its human rights policies including standards about acceptability of misogynist and gender-based hate speech on its online platform, in the same way that a workplace or any company has standards about sexist behaviour. If a company says “we do not tolerate misogynist speech in our platform,” are we going to protest and say “this is censorship” or are we going to say that they are contributing to changing the culture of misogyny and sexism?
Where’s the real danger?
York fears that the campaign sets a dangerous precedent for other ‘special interest groups looking to get their pet issues censored’. However, Facebook has rules and community standards of its own and it regulates content. But their practice does not match their rethoric or their standards. They need to implement better, they need to improve their systems and they need to consult their users.
So, how does the campaign become a dangerous precedent? If other interest groups decide to raise their “pet issues,” isn’t this part of their freedom as Facebook users?
What is dangerous is allowing Facebook to continue to decide on its own and not speaking out against what York herself labels as “abhorrent, awful and offensive”. The campaign bravely took on Facebook by saying that: Gender-based hate speech is unacceptable, and we do not want it on a platform that we use. Some users disagreed with this position. Some advertisers pulled their ads from Facebook, while others stayed. The fact is the campaign started a serious debate on misogyny, violence against women and freedom of expression. So rather than simply raise ‘censorship’ as a red herring and dismiss this campaign as futile, it would be far more useful if freedom of expression advocates and experts offer alternatives and solutions that lead to standards that respect women’s rights and freedom of expression at the same time.
(1) United Nations General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, A/HRC/17/27, May 2011, www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/A.HRC.17.27_en.pdf
(2) Kylie Weston-Scheuber, “Gender and the prohibition of hate speech”, QUT Law & Justice Journal, 12, 2 (2012), lr.law.qut.edu.au/article/download/504/494