As the Islamic State marauds across Syria and Iraq engaging in the sexual enslavement of Christian and Yazidi women and girls, the United Nations has decided to devote its resources to studying “just how rough it is being a woman on the Internet in North America.” In a new report suggesting that online harassment in the U.S. and Canada is a crisis on the same order as “mob lynching of women, reported femicide and the sex and human trafficking trades”, a UN committee calls for a sweeping global censorship regime to make the Internet friendlier to women. A piece in the Washington Post by Caitlin Dewey sums up the news:
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. […]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.”
There’s no doubt that internet harassment, threats and bullying are real and persistent problems. But online nastiness is a problem for both genders: While women may be subjected to particularly vile types of harassment, a Pew survey suggests that men are targeted just as much, if not more. And no matter how severe the problem is, it is absurd to suggest, as the report does, that online harassment of women in the West is comparable to the actual, physical brutality inflicted on women regularly in many parts of the world. (For example, the UN body that issued the report includes commissioners from China, where sex-selective abortion and female infanticide are notoriously widespread; from India, where the rape rate is rising so quickly that several countries have issued travel advisories for their citizens; and from the United Arab Emirates, where women who violate provisions of Sharia can be subjected to flogging or stoning).The UN report, while surely well-meaning, represents a typical moral panic—a sense of crisis and fear blown far out of proportion. As with most propagators of panics, the authors of the report want to crack down on civil liberties. As Dewey explained, the report appears to be proposing a government-enforced internet censorship regime, whereby websites and social media companies would be punished if they did not agree to monitor and police offensive content to the satisfaction of the United Nations. Needless to say, this type of censorship already exists in many countries (particularly those countries with the worst records on women’s rights) but the UN Broadband Commission—nominally a proponent of a free and open internet—would apparently like to see it exported to Western democracies as well.This is not the answer. Online harassment should be socially stigmatized, and, when it crosses over into the realm of true threats or other illegal conduct, reported to the authorities. But the world wide web is not an American liberal arts college campus; it can not be made into what college activists call a “safe space,” and the UN has no business trying to make it one.