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Over the past nine months, the mainstream press has seized on the subject of online sexism in the same way a toddler might seize a new toy — inept and excited, twisting its intricacies. A few years ago, the fact that women using the Internet routinely find themselves subject to abuse, harassment, intimate surveillance and violent threats was an open secret. Now, following months of publicity over the abuse of women such as Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned for a female face on British banknotes, the question is no longer whether abusive sexism occurs online. The question is what to do about it.
Suggestions have ranged from “forcing Twitter to take action” to “bringing criminal charges against bullies.” This has been interpreted, in some quarters, as women wanting to shut down freedom of speech on the Internet. People should be free to write and publish whatever they want online, or so the logic goes; and if that includes graphic fantasies about raping and murdering you, personal information or both, women should just learn to live with it, or get offline.
The notion that freedom of expression is a basic human right is relatively noncontroversial. But the questions of who has the right to speak, who has to listen mutely, and at what point one person’s freedom of expression impinges on the freedom of another have not yet been satisfactorily answered.
What is freedom of speech, and who gets to exercise it? The answer depends in part on where you live. In British and American political culture, for example, there are are huge cultural differences between how “free speech” is valued and measured. In the United States, dedication to free speech, as enshrined in the First Amendment, is at the core of popular ideology and patriotism: It is cherished, at least in theory, across political divides. Britain also maintains legal protections against state censorship — but national dedication to the principle is nebulous enough that the country is able to maintain some of the most stringent libel laws on the planet. The culture of the English-speaking Internet is overwhelmingly American, but some things do get lost in translation. Last summer, British feminists calling for Twitter and other social media companies to do more to shut down sexist abuse online ran into American digital rights campaigners calling them illiberal — and, on their own terms, both groups were correct.
Inattention to context is part of the reason why, for some online speech activists, it’s become all too easy to see women seeking respect and decent treatment online as enemies of liberty, rather than human beings with as much right to dignity and freedom of expression as anyone else. At the extreme end, the notion of censorship has become so co-opted that blocking trolls on Twitter, or expressing dismay at the number of rape threats clogging up your inbox, can get you labeled a prude and a censor — as though the right to free speech were the same as the right to have your views attended to in mute and respectful silence by those they are designed to wound.
Fortunately, there are a good many people who believe that the ideals of gender liberation and freedom of expression are not mutually exclusive. Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that as a feminist and a free speech activist, she does not "want to see private companies arbitrating speech, nor do I wish to see additional regulations placed on what we can say online.” While censorship “is not the answer,” York says, "individual harassment must be dealt with by law enforcement.”
People tell me that if I don’t like the rape threats, I should just get off Twitter. But what they are really trying to say is this: Public space is not for you.
But can individual harassment also be protected speech? The distinction between the two is getting messier as a greater proportion of human interaction becomes, technically, publication. How can we draw the line between “real world violence” and “online abuse” when for so many people, so much of what we do, from talking to our lovers to taking down the government, involves typing words and clicking “send”?
Right now I’m doing just that, writing this article in one window, chatting with my best friend in another and downloading music in a third. What I’ve learned over the past few years is there are a great many people out there who would rather I refrain from those things. Their savagery is a daily hazard, a continual overhead cost on my work as a writer and activist. People tell me that if I don't like the rape threats, the death threats and the constant barrage of ugly insults, I should just get off Twitter. But what they are really trying to say is this: Public space is not for you.
A change in culture
If women are permitted to take part in public debate only if they can cope with an onslaught of recreational misogyny, the assumption is that the digital commons — which are not, in fact, common, but a succession of private fiefdoms that function as public space — is the domain of men. Women who whine about the way they’re treated online are thus just freedom-hating harpies. It clearly has not occurred to armchair bigots who insist upon their right to free speech that women deserve the same right to speak freely online, without fear of harassment or violence, as anyone else. They claim the absolute right to “express” themselves online, and, more often than not, it is granted to them. Perhaps they should think about whether repressive governments are using similar tactics to control the speech of radicals and dissidents — and whether that, too, is permissible in their view.
Freedom of speech does not include the right to have everybody pay attention when you’re being a prize prick. Laws and policies regulating publication will always be abused, but social media platforms thriving in this attention economy can make it much easier for people experiencing harassment to deny bullies their attention. For example, Twitter users still have to block trolls individually; curated block lists, suggested by a number of activists, would enable people experiencing online abuse to collectively decide who is and is not worth their time.
The solutions to this problem are social as well as technical. It is not possible to install a widget for “treating other people like human beings.” It is easier by far to call for a change in the law or in the behavior of individual private companies than it is to call for a change in culture — but that’s what it’s going to take to solve this problem. It’s about standing against shame and standing for common humanity. All around the world, activists are fighting for the future of free speech online, and we must not allow that fight to become tarnished by association with those who would corrupt the principle of protected speech to defend their right to abuse others.
If we truly care about free expression, if we care about information access, we must not only fight for everyone’s right to the digital commons. We must prove, again and again, that it is worth defending.