Ed note. this is a guest post by David Sullivan, an independent consultant specializing in technology and human rights. He previously was the first director of policy and communications at the Global Network Initiative.
The next generation of conservative conspiracy theorists is raising the specter of a UN plot to control the Internet. This time, conservative media are cheerleading trolling by agitators associated with the online harassment campaign against women in technology and feminist critics of gaming culture, known by the hashtag #gamergate. Their latest targets concern a report on cyber-violence against women and girls by the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development, which has spread to an attack on the Internet Governance Forum and the work of vital civil society organization the Association for Progressive Communications.
The line of attacks is so spectacularly misguided it would be laughable, were it not for the deadly seriousness of the issue.
The cyber-violence report was published a few weeks ago to widespread criticism for poor sourcing, questionable assertions—for example, that video games cause violence—and problematic recommendations that could infringe on free expression online. It was thankfully soon retracted with an apology and promises of revisions.
But the gamergate trolls have gone on from there to target the entire issue of gender-based abuse and online violence. Apparently aghast that the UN would consult with targets of harassment campaigns, they are now questioning whether online abuse and harassment are worthy of the UN’s attention. They go on to suggest that intergovernmental cooperation to combat online harassment will somehow lead to greater government censorship of Internet content worldwide.
This is absurd for a great many reasons.
First, there is no question that online gender-based violence is a growing worldwide phenomenon with serious offline consequences. The Washington Post’s recent coverage of hackers using fake Facebook profiles and posts to defame Afghan women is just one particularly dangerous permutation of the problem.
The consensus in the tech community that online abuse a significant issue meriting a coordinated international response now encompasses everyone from major Internet companies (who are now getting serious about revenge porn) to the developers and supporters of the TOR anonymity software. This recognition is welcome but long overdue. In fact, the very hashtag that gamergaters hijacked over the weekend, #takebackthetech, is the name of a civil society campaign to raise awareness of online abuse that started in 2006!
Second, the same activists and organizations that internet trolls are perversely seeking to silence in the name of free expression have spent years in the trenches working to ensure that the same human rights we are entitled to offline apply online. Organizations like the Association for Progressive Communications have been critical to getting the UN Human Rights Council to endorse this principle by consensus, as well as putting gender rights on the international agenda. There is a reason why the Electronic Frontier Foundation just honored APC and its executive director Anriette Esterhuysen with their 2015 Pioneer Award, a lifetime achievement award for internet activism.
Finally, the institution that is now coming under fire, the Internet Governance Forum, represents precisely the opposite of the government-controlled censorship bogeyman that conservatives rail against. The IGF is a multi-stakeholder gathering that brings together governments with the private sector, civil society, and academia and the technical community, and was developed as a compromise and alternative to visions of an intergovernmental body like the International Telecommunications Union taking control of Internet policymaking functions. As anyone who has attended an IGF knows, it is by design a “talk shop” . Like any international conference, it can be misused, particularly when hosted by governments with no commitment to online freedom using it for a propaganda win.
There are serious threats to online freedoms arising at the United Nations, such, such as the International Code of Conduct for Information Security submitted to the General Assembly by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Just as harmful has been the hypocrisy of western governments supposedly committed to Internet freedom who engage in mass surveillance of innocent populations or use the threat of terrorism to censor the Internet without due process protections.
The relationship between the UN system and Internet governance fuels strong opinions on all sides. There are good reasons why we should be skeptical of governments–particularly of the authoritarian variety–using opaque intergovernmental processes to exclude civil society and the private sector from venues where Internet policy gets decided. There are also equally important concerns that western companies and governments with decidedly uneven track records on human rights have for far too long had a disproportionate influence on how the Internet is governed. That is precisely why advocates for human rights and women’s rights have spent so much time and energy working to place gender issues on the agenda at venues like the IGF, which were designed to allow all interested parties a voice at the table.
Online activists genuinely concerned with free speech might want to consider listening to the people and organizations that have spent decades fighting for a more free and open Internet, instead of cynically seeking to suppress them.
— David Sullivan is an independent consultant specializing in technology and human rights. He previously was the first director of policy and communications at the Global Network Initiative.