Frequently asked questions


Understanding technology-related violence against women

Violence against women has been defined by the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Technology-related violence against women (tech-related VAW) encompasses acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as phones, the internet, social media platforms, and email.

Just as women face risks offline, in the streets and in homes, women and girls can face specific dangers and risks on the internet such as online harassment, cyber stalking, privacy invasions with the threat of blackmail, viral ‘rape videos’ and for young women in particular, the distribution of ‘sex videos’ that force survivors to relive the trauma of sexual assault every time it is reposted online, via mobile phone or distributed in other ways.

Technology-related VAW infringes on women’s right to self-determination and bodily integrity. It cause psychological and emotional harm, reinforce prejudice, damage reputation, cause economic loss and pose barriers to participation in public life, and may lead to sexual and other forms of physical violence.

As previously noted, psychological harm is recognised as a form of violence and is clearly defined as a human rights violation under international law.

Analysis of cases from the APC’s research and mapping project showed that the harms resulting from technology-related VAW include emotional or psychological harm, harm to reputation, physical harm, sexual harm, invasion of privacy, loss of identity, limitation of mobility, censorship, and loss of property.

These forms of violence also impacts on women’s capacity to move freely, without fear of surveillance. It denies them the opportunity to craft their own identities online, and to form and engage in socially and politically meaningful interactions.

Other cases have shown that technology-related VAW can result in a violation of the right to life. For example, a case of spousal abuse resulting in a woman being fatally stabbed by her husband, submitted to CEDAW, included reference of threats and harassment made by the perpetrator to the victim by telephone (Fatma Yildirim (deceased) v. Austria, communication No. 6/2005, views adopted 6 August 2007, para. 12.1.3). Various cases covered by the media have shown incidences of online violence and harassment leading to the victim committing suicide.

The APC's analysis of findings from over a thousand cases reported on the Take Back the Tech! online map revealed that the 3 general categories of women who experience tech-related VAW were:

  1. Women in an intimate relationship whose partner had become abusive;
  2. Survivors of physical assault – often from intimate partner abuse or rape;
  3. Professionals with a public profile involved in public communication (e.g. writers, researchers, activists and artists).

Like all VAW, much of tech-related VAW is perpetrated by someone known. Of 24 case studies collected in the APC’s research, 14 of the perpetrators were known to the survivors. In most of these cases, the perpetrator had an intimate relationship with the woman (as either a current or former boyfriend/husband), or belonged to the survivor’s immediate circle (of family members, co- workers or friends).

In addition, findings from over a thousand cases reported on the Take Back the Tech! online map from 2012 to 2014, revealed that the majority (40%) of cases are perpetrated by someone known to the survivor.

In cases where tech-related VAW took place in the context of domestic violence, women were subjected to physical beatings and/or sexual violence, coupled with insulting, threatening or violent text messages, phone calls or emails. In other cases, after the relationship had ended, private or intimate photos and videos of women were uploaded online to exact revenge and intimidate them. In some cases, the violence started online. For example, one woman was threatened first via mobile phone – an act of violence that over time escalated into rape. APC’s research showed that whilst aggressors used a wide array of ICTs to harass women, mobile phones were the most commonly used tool to perpetrate tech-related VAW.

“Revenge porn” is a gross violation of a woman's privacy where private and sexually explicit video and photographic images are published without explicit permission and consent onto various websites for the purposes of extortion, blackmail and/or humiliation. In India and the Philippines, episodes of revenge porn have led to amendments of the law to accommodate voyeurism and other instances of technology-related VAW as criminal offences, and in the United States revenge porn is recognised as a criminal misdemeanour. A court in Germany has also ruled that a person (in this instance, a woman) can request that her ex-lover be asked to remove all photographs of her from any storage device or computer. This does provide some protection for a person against instances of revenge porn, and in legal terms gives more weight to the “personality right” of the person in the images vis-à-vis the intellectual property right of the person taking the photograph.

However, the term “revenge porn” is misleading, because what it describes is an act of violence, and should not be conflated with pornographic content. It refers to the motivation of wanting to get back (usually at a woman) or to take revenge for rejecting a marriage proposal, spurning advances, or ending a relationship, for being seen as “loose” or amoral, being seen with someone else or someone outside of the caste or religious community, etc. – outside the male's control. In many ways these reasons are similar to those for which women are targeted for acid attacks in countries such as India and Pakistan.

A broad definition of technology-related VAW has been provided earlier, along with a list of examples of what should be covered. In relation to social media platforms such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Orkut and others, a recent APC study found the following specific instances of harassment, bullying, threats and other kinds of violence, involving both psychological and sometimes physical harm:

  • Creation of “imposter” profiles of women, often to discredit, defame and damage their reputations.
  • Spreading private and/or sexually explicit photos/videos, often with intent to harm and/or commit blackmail.
  • Pages, comments, posts, etc. targeting women with gender-based hate (misogynistic slurs, death threats, threats of sexual violence, etc.).

Publishing personal identifying information about these women including names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses without their consent.

Mobile phones were most often used as a tool to inflict psychological and emotional violence on women and girls when physical contact was not possible, as per the study conducted by APC. In a few cases, it was unknown aggressors or strangers harassing or intimidating through calls or SMS, but in the majority of cases involving mobile phones, the harassment and intimidation were within the context of ongoing physical abuse from a known aggressor. The extended violence fell into the categories of domestic violence, intimate-partner abuse, homophobic violence, kidnapping, rape and sexual assault. State services and law enforcement are primarily responsible for enabling women’s access to justice in addressing such violence, but companies can also help provide avenues for redress.

APC’s research on domestic legal remedies for cases of technology-related violence against women revealed a prevailing culture of impunity around these human rights violations.

The case studies analysed in the research illustrated the perceived notion of a complete breakdown in the criminal justice system, including the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of cases involving VAW. The non-efficacy of the laws and the lack of government action were aggravated by gender insensitivity on the part of enforcers and service providers, which served to silence women instead of encouraging them to assert their rights.

Relevant laws, in several instances, were essentially dead letter legislation – i.e. laws that were no longer being enforced. The excessive time taken to file charges, delays in the investigations, and the number of years that passed before a case was properly considered were all factors that made women survivors desist from “wasting their time” by filing a complaint.

It is clear that technology-related VAW covers a range of behaviour and actions that are invasive of privacy and bodily sovereignty. Yet since these offences use technological means, often the incidents are not taken seriously. This is most often the case in countries where there is a culture of impunity and lack of accountability, and where cases of rape and sexual assault are infrequently reported and prosecuted. In these circumstances, incidents of technology-related VAW are doubly trivialised, with factors such as class, caste, ethnicity and race playing a role.

If violence against women is taken seriously in judicial and social culture, then this necessarily includes crimes of harassment, stalking, voyeurism, etc. that are mediated through technology. Technology-related violence exists in a continuum, and often what are seen as “merely virtual” threats soon translate into physical violence and threats to the life and safety of individuals. A common fallacy is that prevention and redress should be concomitant with the offence: this means that if harassment or stalking takes place online then it should be addressed online or only through technological means. It would in fact be preferable to address the level of seriousness of the threat posed by the offender; for example, a protection order against someone making threats of violence and sexual assault would be more effective than blocking their phone or disabling their account when they can easily open a new one.

The perception is often that the violence that takes place online is not “real” and is therefore less harmful. Another perception is that if violence is not physical, then it is not as damaging. However, mental cruelty and psychological violence are recognised both in international law and in most national jurisdictions. The UN DEVAW recognises all kinds of violence: “physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering”. However, in certain contexts, such as where violence against women is endemic (Pakistan) or where there is already a collapse of regulatory structures and corrupt and oppressive regimes (Colombia), this can further lead to the discounting of technology-related VAW.

Incidents of technology-related VAW are also increasing because of the growing use of technology that can exacerbate existing structures of patriarchy and heteronormative oppressiveness. In most countries, what is required is an overhaul of all laws relating to sexual assault, violence and harassment. If the experience of women and others who are vulnerable because of gender or sexuality is taken into consideration, then all forms of violence, including those mediated by or related to technology, will be listed, and thus recognised in the law.

A specific law for technology-related VAW is essential in most countries because women face violence and harassment on a daily basis within heteropatriarchal societies and because of the impunity of male power vis-à-vis the law. This vulnerability to structural violence and exclusion is not limited to women, but is also part of the experience of transgender and intersexed people, and often even experienced by minority and ethnic groups that are in grossly unequal relations to those in positions of power or authority (for instance, Tibetans in China, Dalits in India, etc.). For such minority and ethnic groups, there should be specific additional provisions for their protection from hate crimes and hate speech.

In relation to gender-related violence that is technologically mediated, there is a need to extend the categories of those vulnerable to include women, transgender and intersexed people. Children should also be protected, but there are already specific United Nations protocols on child pornography and trafficking and on children’s access to sexual material.

Transgender and intersexed people face transphobia, harassment and violence and this should be considered in the formulation of laws that deal with sexual assault and technologically mediated violence. Often transwomen and transmen are subject to intimidation and fear, offline and online, and are victimised and bullied. A recent instance of harassment was the editing of wiki pages to misgender public figures or celebrities who have transitioned. In several Asian countries there is or has been cultural and social acceptance of transgender people, and a recent judgment from India reflects the growing acceptance of the need for welfare schemes for transgender people.Violence against women and transgender people that is mediated through technology is indicative of the limits of both sexual and technological citizenship – who can and cannot determine their own lives, desires and bodies, and who can access technology for their own needs rather than being at the mercy of technologies of the state.

State and laws

In countries where it is possible to file complaints for technology-related VAW either under new laws or older laws on defamation and obscenity, such complaints are often trivialised. When women report to the police, the police can be unaccommodating or dismissive. When they bring their concern to the authorities, it is hard to even get a police report filed, because of the failure of the authorities to recognise online threats and harassment as VAW or possible crimes. There is also the added social stigma of making such a complaint, disapprobation from family and community, and often disregard for the privacy of the complainant both in the media coverage and by the police. The heteropatriarchal culture that does not value the autonomy or sovereignty of women and other vulnerable people, like transgender or intersexed persons, needs to be combated through raising awareness, legal change and other tools.

Offences related to violence against women are mostly contained in penal laws, and often fall short of the provisions established by the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women or by General Recommendation 19 of CEDAW. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, provisions relating to VAW can be found in the penal code under criminal offences against sexual freedom and morality. Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have laws that look at VAW as violations against a woman’s modesty and violations against good morals and public morals, respectively. In Kenya and the DRC, VAW can be found under the sexual offences acts. Under these laws, VAW is closely tied with morality, only women can be “victims”, and often sexual assault is only defined in terms of penile penetration. These categorisations automatically limit the laws’ applicability and fail to recognise the multiple forms of violation that exist.

Some countries, such as Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines, recognise psychological violence in their laws, and this can to some extent cover technology-related VAW. In other jurisdictions (Bosnia and Herzegovina, India) there is a similar recognition of mental cruelty or psychological violence but only in relation to domestic violence within family and marriage, so this does not extend to cases of technology-related VAW committed by those not in such a relation to the person.

Technology-related VAW often exists in a continuum: most women face violence that extends from online to offline and is not limited to a technological device or platform. For example, harassment and stalking often lead to physical violence, or sexual assault is captured via images that are then circulated online.

Thus, what is needed is a review of legislation relating to VAW, and this must include technology-related violence because only then would it cover the range of violence that women and other vulnerable people face.

Countries such as the Philippines, India and Myanmar have recognised the right to privacy, often in their penal laws, laws related to ICT and/or as a constitutional right. Further, most multinational companies offering web-based services, such as Google, Facebook and others, abide by some minimum standards for protection of privacy.

Feminists have had a longstanding problem with the notion of privacy as articulated in terms of the domestic realm or the home, because it allowed for the creation of a private sphere sanctified by culture and patriarchy within which women were often “victims” of violence or their mobility and employment outside the home were suppressed. At the same time, privacy is critical for survivors of VAW, as it allows them to access life-saving information and take steps to keep violence out of their lives.

Technology-related VAW covers a range of behaviours and actions, and ideally both civil and criminal remedies should be available. Some legal innovations to address technology-related VAW have emerged in countries such as South Africa, after extensive consultations with local women’s groups and civil society.

In South Africa, a possible remedy against online and offline harassment is under the Protection from Harassment Act 2010, under which victims can apply to court for a protection order for up to five years. Here, harassment is defined to include both online and offline harassment, whether within domestic relations or by others. Similarly, the Canadian province of Nova Scotia provides for a protection order in the case of cyber bullying, which includes punishment through a fine and confiscation of electronic devices. Cyber bullying is also a tort, which offers the option of recovering damages from the offender, although only through a lengthy civil trial.

The findings from the study carried out in seven countries by APC on technology-related VAW led to these findings: In most countries there is a need for specific provision for technology-related VAW criminal offences.

  • Both civil and criminal remedies are necessary.
  • Law enforcement only deals with “serious” or more technical crimes.
  • Gender-related crimes are not a priority for police.
  • There are only related bills, rather than acts, or non-functioning cyber crime units in most countries.

In certain countries there is a culture of impunity and male power entrenched in institutions of the judiciary and police that make it difficult to prosecute violence against women. Instances of technology-related VAW are most often dealt with through out-of-court settlements rather than lengthy or corrupt trials (Pakistan, Philippines). In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Colombia, women have suffered from mass rapes and impunity remains a problem. In Mexico, the fight against drugs, the extreme violence around the country and the general context of insecurity have invisibilised the murders of women. With public policy and legislative reform carried out in the name of “national security”, even basic civil rights are being challenged.

Some countries have laws that specifically deal only with technology-related violence against women and other vulnerable people – the Philippines, Nova Scotia (Canada), South Africa, Kenya, India, New Zeland and the United States, among others. In the US state of California, a new misdemeanour of disorderly conduct was created to deal with instances of revenge porn. New Zealand has a gender-neutral law (i.e. it covers people of all genders) that deals with all harmful digital communications with both civil and criminal remedies, and which has created new criminal offences in cases of serious harm. The Philippines amended the colonial Spanish law on sexual assault and violence in 2004, and subsequently passed the Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act in 2010, which deals with voyeurism and revenge porn. India has included some provisions on voyeurism and stalking in a recent amendment to penal law.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s penal code contains provisions relating to the unauthorised recording, photographing or filming of another person in his/her personal premises without that person’s consent, or the distribution to a third party of such material without consent. Kenya has a cyber crime law under which the improper use of computer systems includes sending messages that are grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or sending messages that one knows to be false for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another person. These laws specifically list components of technology-related VAW, compared to gender equality laws or VAW laws. The provisions of the penal laws factor in the presence and the nature of ICT in defining the acts which they seek to penalise.

In other countries where specific laws or provisions for technology-related VAW do not exist in civil or criminal law, other provisions are used. For instance, in Myanmar, the criminal provision penalising obscene publications along with offences for “outraging the modesty of women” (both inherited from colonial laws) are used to prosecute revenge porn. This combination of prosecuting obscenity and harassment was also used in India prior to the amendment of the law to include some instances of technology-related VAW.

To make the law effective, what is needed is for the police and judiciary to have more knowledge on technology-related VAW – how it is committed and who can be held liable. Staff employed in companies and multinational enterprises also need to be trained on how to deal with complaints. Women have to be aware that behaviour and acts that cause suffering and harm are in fact offences.

Currently, cases of technology-related VAW are trivialised. When women report them to the police, the responses are either unaccommodating or dismissive. When complainants bring their concern to the authorities, cases tend to not reach the stage of filing a police report because of the failure of the authorities to recognise online threats and harassment as either VAW or as possible crimes under the penal code. In Mexico, for instance, the public prosecutor told two survivors that they could not file a complaint because no crime had been committed, even though it is recognised by the penal code, and despite direct threats and defamation affecting personal integrity. In Pakistan, one survivor did not want to report the threats she was receiving for fear that she might be accused of blasphemy and that the police would just say, “You deserved what happened to you”.

Stricter laws for technology-related VAW can offer criminal and civil remedies (most of them are amendments to criminal law) to women and other vulnerable people who face harassment, bullying, stalking and other technologically mediated violence that can often extend to physical harm. This would cover instances of wilfully leaking intimate images and conducting “sting operations” that violate the privacy of the person. The ways in which laws are drafted and the duty of the courts are meant to maintain the balance between the right to privacy of the individual as recognised in international law, constitutional law and penal laws, and freedom of expression. The only defence against charges of defamation and voyeurism or wilful exposure of private/intimate material is that the public good will be served by such a disclosure. This can clearly not be established for ordinary people or even in cases of private videos of celebrities or politicians.

Most cases of technology-related VAW are malicious attacks on the sexual and technological citizenship of women and other vulnerable people. While technology is heralded as bringing greater freedom of expression and greater efficiency, it also increases the vulnerability of those who do not have access to privileges of gender and class, such as women, minority groups, transgender people, poor people and others. Technology-related VAW impedes women’s freedom of expression by creating a violent, misogynistic culture online.

While the UN Secretary General noted in 2006 that more inquiry was needed about “the use of technology […] in developing and expanding forms of violence [against women]”, the international system has been slow to respond to these concerns. However, over the last few years, UN human rights experts as well as intergovernmental bodies have begun to address the issue of technology-related violence against women.

In March 2013 the Commission on the Status of Women’s agreed conclusions on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls, adopted at its 57th session (2013) urged governments and relevant stakeholders to:

develop mechanisms to combat the use of ICT and social media to perpetrate violence against women and girls, including the criminal misuse of ICT for sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, child pornography and trafficking in women and girls, and emerging forms of violence such as cyber stalking, cyber bullying and privacy violations that compromise women’s and girls’ safety.

In mid-2013, the UN Working Group on Discrimination against women in law and practice, in its first thematic report, included specific reference to the internet as “a site of diverse forms of violence against women.” The Working Group expressed concern that for “women who engage in public debate through the Internet, the risk of harassment is experienced online, for example, an anonymous negative campaign calling for the gang rape of a woman human rights defender, with racist abuse posted in her Wikipedia profile.”

The Working Group further recommended that states support women’s equal participation in political and public life through ICTs, including by ensuring gender-responsiveness in the promotion and protection of human rights on the internet, and improving women’s access to the global governance of ICTs.

At the end of 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a consensus resolution on protecting women human rights defenders with language on tech-related human rights violations. The resolution acknowledged that:

information-technology-related violations, abuses and violence against women, including women human rights defenders, such as online harassment, cyberstalking, violation of privacy, censorship and 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 a manifestation of systemic gender-based discrimination, requiring effective responses compliant with human rights.

More recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on VAW, in her report to the 29th session of the Human Rights Council (2015) on her mission to the UK, expressed concern about “women aged between 18 and 29 being at greatest risk of threatening and offensive advances on the Internet.”The special rapporteur referenced a recent study which found that “many women and girls had been exposed to harmful behaviours online, including humiliation, harassment, intimidation and ‘sexting’ as a form of bullying.”

In July 2015, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted the General recommendation 33 on women's access to justice that highlights the important role of ICTs in transforming social and cultural stereotypes about women, as well as in ensuring effectiveness and efficiency of justice for all women.


Most companies that provide services such as social media platforms or websites require the user to agree to their terms of service (TOS). The TOS contain clauses that prohibit the user from using the company’s services for illegal purposes, and this is sometimes extended to fraudulent, abusive or indecent purposes. Even the term “illegal purposes” can be extended as per the law of the land to acts and behaviour that violate the privacy of the individual, or to the distribution of “pornographic” material, thus covering some instances of technology-related VAW. However, it is preferable that the TOS make explicit references to what is not acceptable.

In most companies, the TOS refer to illegal uses that impact the company directly, such as violation of copyright, financial fraud, extortion and child pornography, but do not specifically mention any human rights abuses, especially those based on gender, sexuality or related issues. The liability of the company via its TOS is often only a reflection of its legal obligations in its country of residence. There is common reluctance to engage directly with human rights issues.

A company enters into a privacy policy with users which requires it to protect their data unless ordered to divulge it by a court order. Despite the bureaucracy, and the length of time this adds to processing complaints, requiring a court order before companies disclose the personal data of users is good law. It provides a system of checks and balances that limits abuse of privacy rights by governments and other state authorities, as well as by companies and individuals.

A privacy policy also ensures that this protection is extended to women, transgender people and other users who might be vulnerable. Instances of stalking by government officials (India) make this important. The right to privacy in the digital age is of growing importance and a balance should be maintained in law and policy between the right to privacy and the rights of women and transgender people against violence that is mediated through technology.

Not many people know how to make a complaint to a multinational company. Moreover, the records of how such a process works are not easily available to determine its effectiveness, as was found during the APC study.

Most companies do have the mechanisms in place that should technically respond to such violations . But there is little public information on how these mechanisms work or how effective they are – even basic information like how many complaints were received, statistics on how they were dealt with, or the kind of training on sexuality, gender, human rights and law that the staff receives. It is because of this corporate stonewalling that survivors of technology-related violence have to access remedies through the courts, even if these are slower or less effective. Also, companies often take ad hoc action without reference to their own complaint procedures and thus end up hampering the speech of the survivors of technology-related violence, or women and others who are vulnerable. Facebook’s policy on breastfeeding pictures is one such example, where their mechanisms of censorship and ad hoc removal are more harmful to women than beneficial.

In addition to a lack of transparency on internal decision-making processes, no social media/networking company surveyed has a public commitment to human rights, nor demonstrates a clear understanding of violence against women, though some steps have been taken.

Check our research outputs for a more detailed description and assessment of the complaint processes of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The staff or personnel employed in companies need to be trained about how technology is used for violence against women in such instances and how to effectively stop or block the aggressors. Training or capacity building should include which relevant international guidelines or national laws have to be followed in relation to the company’s commitment to uphold the human rights of women, vulnerable or minority groups, as well as national laws on defamation, voyeurism or other civil and criminal offences connected to technology-related violence against women. There is little understanding of how technology can be used for violence against women; for instance, a user can switch to a new account to continue abusive behaviour. In such instances the company has to find effective ways of blocking the aggressor.

Obviously, companies would be the most effective providers of remedies such as take-down of material that violates a person’s privacy, or effectively blocking users who are harassing others even if they switch accounts. The presumption of most corporate policies, however, is that the only demand is identifying harassing users, and this obscures the possibility of coming up with more holistic solutions to technology-related violence against women and others who are vulnerable.

Multinational enterprises should detail the jurisdiction of the parent company and the subsidiaries, so users know which grievance mechanism should be used. The problem with these grievance mechanisms is often the lack of transparency in how they function. Take Back the Tech! has rated Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and graded their relative commitment to address technology-related VAW.

In most countries not located in the global North, it is difficult to access the grievance or complaint mechanisms set up by a multinational company. Even if there are ways to “flag” content as offensive, abusive or a violation of your privacy, these complaints take a long time to be addressed and sometimes are wrongly understood. There is obviously an English language bias in reporting mechanisms, even on social media platforms that do support other languages. Efforts by such companies to include marginal or minority group concerns in their policy are confined to locations in the global North. For instance, Facebook has launched the Network of Support, comprising five US-based LGBT advocacy organisations, and in July 2013, in collaboration with the US National Network to End Domestic Violence, it released “Safety and Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse”. However, this engagement is limited to groups in North America and the European Union.

Technically, in most instances they can. For purposes of data retention laws or for billing, most companies have information to substantiate claims of abuse (for instance, the frequency of calls or contact made by the aggressor or the person misusing the services). Most companies, however, do not enact the disruption of services policy in relation to abusive behaviour or acts such as stalking, harassment, threats, etc. Suspending services is confined to instances when companies are owed monies. If the law of the land does not take abusive or coercive messages sent via phone or SMS seriously as threats, then in such cases (Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina) it is unlikely that companies would take any helpful action on behalf of the woman or other vulnerable person being targeted.

A multinational company has to abide by the national law. Since its terms of service (TOS) usually prohibit illegal use of the company’s service or platform, this would ensure that those acts covered under the existing national law as offences against women would be grounds for a complaint.

Other than TOS and privacy policies (which abide by laws of national jurisdiction), some international guidelines would be relevant to business operations. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (or the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework of the UN) would be applicable to all these enterprises. The guidelines require that human rights be respected throughout the operations of businesses, and establish that it is the duty of the state or government to ensure this. Section 12 of these guiding principles establishes the responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights, and in the commentary there is specific mention of the human rights of individuals who belong to certain vulnerable groups, i.e. the rights of indigenous peoples; women; national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities; children; persons with disabilities; and migrant workers and their families.

Principles of women’s sovereignty over their own bodies and their rights against violence, both online and offline, as established in CEDAW and DEVAW, the principles outlined in the Optional Protocol on Child Pornography, and the rights of vulnerable and marginal groups established in civil, political and human rights documents should also be part of the commitment of most business operations, although they are technically applicable only to states that have ratified these documents.

See also the checklist for addressing violence against women and ensuring compliance with the UN Guiding Principles, developed as part of this research.

APC’s study of corporate policies covered the following companies: platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, WordPress; pornography websites such as Xvideos and YouPorn; internet portals such as Google-Colombia and Yahoo-Philippines; and telephone, mobile and internet service providers such as Telecom in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Claro ETB in Colombia, Airtel in the DRC, and national telecom services in Kenya, Pakistan, Mexico and the Philippines, among others.

The companies surveyed had no formal public records of how their customer service departments operate. The study looked at what records they keep, what kinds of reports they receive and with what frequency, whether they have enough staff for the volume of complaints, and what transparency measures are in place regarding company decisions on complaints.

Moreover, even if there is a clear definition of unacceptable use in the TOS, there is no clear, easy-to-access and transparent procedure to deal with complaints of violations by users vis-à-vis other users on the website or platform. Such complaints of illegal or abusive behaviour need to be dealt with in a formal and timely manner beyond a general “customer service” department.

Most such companies shift the burden of dealing with technology-related VAW to the state or national government where their operations are located, or to the individuals facing harassment. Their responses are that:

  • Law enforcement is responsible for addressing VAW.
  • A court order is essential to protect privacy rights.

Women and girls should take steps to keep themselves safe.While most women’s groups and feminists agree that companies must abide by privacy laws and laws for freedom of expression at an international and national level, the corporate attitude displayed to abuses of women’s rights and human rights is troubling.