How the United Nations and Arthur Chu Threaten Free Speech

The U.N. has no idea how to combat cyberbullying.



The United Nations is suddenly very interested in doing something about cyber-bullying and online harassment against women, and here's the document to prove it: Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls—A Worldwide Wake-up Call.

The report is riddled with errors, incomplete sentences, and bad hyperlinks. And then there's the small matter of its actual content.

This "wake-up call" does identify a real problem: it's true that women—including the women the U.N. enlisted to highlight this report: Gamergate foes Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn—face a lot of nastiness (doxing, harassment, threats, etc.) on the internet. But the report links this problem with a host of other social ills—like sex-trafficking and porn consumption—and in doing so, quickly loses all sense of what harassment actually is and how it should be addressed.

Take the document's fact-free approach to pornography, which it casually associates with violence against women:

Furthermore, studies show that after viewing pornography men are more likely to: report decreased empathy for rape victims; have increasingly aggressive behavioral tendencies; report believing that a woman who dresses provocatively deserves to be raped; report anger at women who flirt but then refuse to have sex; report decreased sexual interest in their girlfriends or wives; report increased interest in coercing partners into unwanted sex acts. Boys aged 12- 17 are the largest consumer group of Internet porn. This suggests that the first images and information surrounding sex that a young boy is exposed to would include violence towards a woman.

Really? All pornography constitutes violence against women? Never mind that a recent study found higher rates of pro-feminist views among men who watch porn. As Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote:

"Taken together, the results of this study fail to support the view that pornography is an efficient deliverer of 'women-hating ideology,'" study authors concluded. "While unexpected from the perspective of radical feminist theory, these results are consistent with a small number of empirical studies that have also reported positive associations between pornography use and egalitarian attitudes."

Researchers relied on data collected between 1975 and 2010 for the General Social Survey, which asks Americans about a wide range of social issues and personal views (including gender equality and personal pornography consumption). For both men and women, viewing porn was associated with more positive attitudes toward women holding positions of power, less negative views of abortion, and less negative attitudes toward women in the workplace.

Brown has also written a cover story for the latest edition of Reason that debunks some of the statistics supporting the current moral panic over sex trafficking in the U.S.

The decision to lump porn and sex trafficking together with online harassment strips the report of focus and produces quite the muddled call to action. Criticizing this approach, New York Magazine's Jesse Singal ably spells out the problem:

Think about the very different ways one would go about tackling these problems. Cyberbullying is primarily an issue for parents and teachers and targeted attempts to change social norms. Anti-sex-trafficking work, at the level discussed in the report, is the realm of INTERPOL and similar organizations, of breaking up really evil criminal organizations. Stalking needs to be taken seriously by local law enforcement. Pile-on harassment delivered via Twitter or other social-media platforms that doesn't rise to the level of actionable threats or intimidation — and this is a pretty significant slice of the harassment pie — has to be dealt with by the platforms themselves in a way that balances free-speech concerns.

If the goal is to actually change people's behaviors so as to reduce the prevalence of these problems, a tailored approach is required. The report nods to this fact here and there, but overall it embraces the view that all of these issues are united by the gender identity of the victim, that they're all just different forms of the same thing: cyber VAWG. "Care needs to be taken not to stereotype or place disproportionate importance on one form of violence over another," the report notes shortly before its conclusion. "Instead, the response to online offences against girls and women should be seen as part of the broader movement against sexual exploitation and abuse of any kind."

But is this true? Obviously, if you're talking about sex-trafficking networks facilitated by the internet, or shocking rape threats, then these issues are part of the "broader movement against sexual exploitation and abuse of any kinds." But is cyberbullying that's pegged to a dispute between two teen girls? Is nonviolent Twitter harassment sparked by a controversial op-ed written by a woman? Many of these issues just don't seem to have the inherent, intimate connection to gendered violence and exploitation that's suggested by the U.N.'s report. They're important issues, but they're different ones, and they need to be dealt with on their own terms.

To the extent the report articulates any sort of strategy to combat online harassment of women, it seems to suggest that governments should pass more laws against cyberbullying—and enforce existing laws more stridently—to the likely detriment of free speech. This is a strategy that everyone, including advocates for a more civil internet, should oppose on free speech grounds. Wherever and whenever online harassment crosses the line into illegal threatening speech, it should be policed by law enforcement. But social media sites like Twitter and Facebook should not be required to protect users from harassment. If users want these sites to operate differently, they are welcome to apply public pressure, but no government—least of all the U.N.—should wade into the fray.

For a more direct, explicit call for government-backed censorship, I turn to the reliable Arthur Chu, who called the U.N. report "slipshod and poorly-thought-out," in a recent column for Tech Crunch. Chu has a bolder idea: eliminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects computer platforms from being sued when users make illegal statements about other people. Twitter, for instance, cannot be sued if one person wrongly asserts in a tweet that another person is a child molester—that person can be sued for libel, but Twitter itself is safe.

Chu thinks Section 230 is a shield that enables harassment. A summary of his argument:

It can't go on like this. The EFF, an organization I generally respect, put forward a spirited defense of Section 230 in 2012, saying that without Section 230 those wonderful viral-growth services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube couldn't exist in their current form. It goes on to argue that individual bloggers are protected by Section 230 from liability for their comments sections.

It ignores that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are excellent tools for stalking, harassment, defamation and all manner of harm, that lives have been lost, careers destroyed, money thrown down the drain because of unaccountable users using unaccountable platforms. It ignores that the whole unquestioned "tradition" of the unmoderated comments section has led to a tradition of trolling, vitriol and lies that make the Internet a worse place and make bloggers who host them worse off. …

The year is 2015, and for over a decade now things have been going from bad to worse. How much worse do they have to get before we act?

Mr. Obama: Tear down this shield.

Popehat's Ken White destroys this argument in a rebuttal well worth a full read:

Arthur Chu seems to think that removing Section 230 will help end online harassment, because forums and sites and blogs will take down nasty things said about people he supports. Maybe. But does Arthur think that harassers won't just as quickly use this new tool he's kindly given them? Does Arthur have a blog? If he does, folks can use anonymous proxies to post mean and nasty criticism on that blog against, say, me — and then I can rush in and sue Arthur. "But I didn't post it! It wasn't up that long! How could I know it was false? It's not really actionable harassment, is it?" Great arguments Arthur. You've got a real shot with those at the summary judgment hearing 18 months and $150,000 from now. Do you really think, Arthur, that the scumbags who threaten and harass and abuse and SWATT people will scruple for a moment about abusing your new less restrictive legal system to harass women and minorities for their online expression? Then you're a damned fool.

What's the result? Web platforms that take down content the minute anyone demands it. The death of any platforms discussing inherently controversial and anger-provoking things. And do you think people abuse complaint systems to shut up their enemies now? Just you wait.

And the flood of lawsuits! Oh, the lawsuits. See, lawsuits are about leveraging the expense and brokenness of the system to shake money out of people. Even if you figure out who HurrHurrFeminitzSuck on Twitter is, he's probably a dude living out of a storage locker. No money to be gained suing him, especially if his comment is close to the line between defamation and non-defamation. But if you can sue Twitter, too, when he talks? Deep pockets ahoy. Now it makes sense to sue, because even if you have a shitty case on the merits, Twitter may settle for a few thousand bucks to avoid the cost of protracted litigation. There are lots of idle lawyers out there, friend. Do you have a house? If so, you better not have comments on your blog.

It's worth discussing strategies to decrease online harassment, and if users want a less toxic internet, social media sites should comply. The government should not be invited to that conversation.