Internet freedom and the EFF’s anti-harassment statement

(This post was originally written for Geekfeminism.org)

I’d love to say that the statement EFF made on the 8th of January was anything but a disappointment, but it is. The fervent devotion to free speech over everything else ends up alienating me (and many others, I’m sure). Yes, I believe in the vital importance of freedom of the press and the freedom from being censored, prosecuted or incarcerated by governments based on the expression of thoughts. But I also believe that harmful and dangerous abusive behaviour by individuals and hate groups needs to be identified and actively stamped out. It needs to be the responsibility of us all, not just the people who find themselves targeted. This is the responsibility that we take on as members of a community. We’re watching people’s lives burn to the ground and the EFF brings a watering can filled with weak platitudes.

The Internet isn’t built for everyone

Internet freedom. It sounds pretty good on paper. An open and uncapturable internet with truly utopian beliefs and ideals about equality. In our rosiest narratives, the internet is one of the most incredible and liberating human inventions in recent history, and it’s certainly changing how we all live our lives. However, this utopian internet — a place where we can all live, work, socialise and act harmoniously together — has never and most likely will never exist. This is because the internet is largely built with the same patriarchal, cis, white male structures that “real world” societies are built with. It’s built from the same essential building blocks, and those blocks’ stresses, cracks and faults continue to harm the same people.

The internet is designed by and for straight, white, cis dudes. If you look at any of the startups currently vying for your valuable time and attention, you will see numbers of far, far more men than women and almost every single one of them will be white. The higher up you go, the whiter and more male it gets. If you follow the money that’s funding these ventures, you’ll notice a lot of them bear a striking resemblance to each other and also to a tall glass of milk.

White, hetero, cis male privilege is unaware of itself, but this is in part because it’s unaware of everyone else. And if these people are building our infrastructure, then there’s an awful lot of essential tools they’re missing because of their ignorance.

The places these people build are becoming increasingly more essential to our businesses, our work and our social lives, whether we like it or not. The dominance of platforms like Twitter and Facebook is strongly influencing we all use the internet and who can safely use the internet. When push comes to shove, the system protects the people who designed it for their own use; but everyone else is constantly placed at risk both in their online activities and in their physical space.

The thorny topic of harassment

Harassment was the hot-button word of 2014. It seemed like things reached some magical media tipping point and all of a sudden, women receiving rape and death threats online counted as proper “real world” news. But as many of us who are the targets (or potential targets) of this kind of harassment know, this behaviour isn’t something that’s just sprung up magically in the last year. It’s the festering muck that’s been lingering at the bottom of potentially every page, probably since the comment section was invented.

Being a woman on the internet is like playing with a ticking time bomb where you can’t see the timer. It could go off any second, or never, or in five years. It could go off because of something you said or someone else, or something completely unrelated to you. It could be because you like a hobby mostly boys like, or you’ve written that you’re fed up with inequality and sexism, or you’d just like a woman’s face to be on a bank note. It’s all stuff that it’s well within our rights as humans to discuss and have opinions about. But if you do so as a woman, you risk being hit with a harassment bomb.

When a harassment bomb detonates, it ruins lives. Private information is shared, companies boycotted, parents’ phone numbers called. Death threats are sent to conventions where victims plan to speak. Victims are blamed and accused of being “professional victims” all the while, the harassers push for their own financial and social profit.

It’s a constant struggle to write, share, and operate normally in the face of constant harassment. Not all of us are strong enough to stand against a tsunami of verbal and visual effluence day after day, and still manage time to build, construct, run, and manage a business. It’s exhausting even to witness from a safe distance, let alone live through. (Those that do manage, let me just say that I love you and everything you bring us, and your voice means the entire world to me. But I do wish you didn’t have to spend so much of your brilliance keeping your safety watertight.)

Since the targets of online harassment are most often marginalised people, this means we are losing voices. Targets are more likely to be women, of colour, trans, disabled, poor, or informally educated. Usually a mix of things because humans don’t tend to sit nicely in categorised boxes. Not everyone who faces this harassment can cut it, and they shouldn’t have to in order to do a simple thing like be active on the internet. We have no idea how many people have quit or won’t even start down this path because of harassment.

What’s wrong with the EFF’s picture

The EFF as an organisation stands up for a lot of the same things that I want to stand up for. Removal of restrictive DRM, power to people instead of governments, critical looks at spying laws and tackling issues of security. But when it comes to matters that involve harassment or the internet’s own structural biases, they are comparatively quiet. Since harassment silences and self-censors so many of our most marginalised voices, I would assume that an organisation like the EFF would jump onto the issue with all guns blazing. They have commented in the past in small doses, but they often take a relatively conservative approach in order to protect the “real” issue of actual proper free speech.

I’d love to say that the statement EFF made on the 8th of January was anything but a disappointment, but it is. The fervent devotion to free speech over everything else ends up alienating me (and many others, I’m sure). Yes, I believe in the vital importance of freedom of the press and the freedom from being censored, prosecuted or incarcerated by governments based on the expression of thoughts. But I also believe that harmful and dangerous abusive behaviour by individuals and hate groups needs to be identified and actively stamped out. It needs to be the responsibility of us all, not just the people who find themselves targeted. This is the responsibility that we take on as members of a community. We’re watching people’s lives burn to the ground and the EFF brings a watering can filled with weak platitudes.

What we are seeing with online abuse can’t be mistaken for a disagreement of opinion. It’s not a couple of people having a swear-off or even just one person losing their cool at another. It’s constant, structured campaigns of active and malicious behaviour, much of it already illegal under existing law. I’m confused as to why it’d even be controversial to take a strong stand against it.

The EFF blames victims. The focus of their suggestions is on potential victims and users needing to learn self-protection, rather than addressing the very clear underlying systemic and cultural elements that allow harassment to flourish. They discount that many victims do already protect themselves — as much as online systems can possibly allow. Even with significant amounts of filtering, muting and blocking, their time and energy is being diverted from enjoying their time online to a constant battle for space and safety.

The EFF say that if only Twitter unlocked its API, third party creators could develop better tools to protect users. And yes, that’s a possibility. But for this possibility to be viable, someone needs to devote an awful lot of their time, skill and energy just to ensure a platform becomes marginally safer, which Twitter should be doing for its users in the first place.

Companies that profit from our data should be doing more to keep us as users safe. We should be able to have systems in place to protect us, built by full-time staff who are paid a living wage. We shouldn’t have to donate our own time to build such systems for ourselves, on top of whatever other work we need to do to keep ourselves and our families safe, fed, and sheltered. It’s your system that’s broken; you need to fix it. Pay someone to fix it. Put it in your business roadmaps. Hire people who know about this stuff. Stop building on top of the same structures that punish marginalised people.

It seems to be the EFF’s position that harassment needs to be condoned to some extent if we want free speech. If we get too tough on harassment, it’ll mostly end up getting used to punish free speech by governments instead of harassment at all. This idea that censorship trickles down is ridiculous, because marginalised people are already facing self-censorship of their work on a daily basis out of fear of harassment. It’s already happening, and we’re not being helped or protected except by each other.

The internet is white. The internet is male. Most of the internet speaks English. If you aren’t or don’t do these things, you are actively and continuously put under pressure to ensure conformity. If you continuously fail to conform, you are sent harassing messages, death and rape threats, and have your whole life twisted upside down for you and then blamed for it.

I love the internet. It’s my home. It’s where I’ve met most of my friends and how I keep connected with my family. It helps me to connect with new clients and keeps me informed of current events. It’s been a teacher, a friend, and my external memory component (effectively making me a cyborg). It improves my life in little and incalculable ways every day. However, the dark, hostile side can’t be ignored or tolerated. In order for the internet to be the best internet it can be, it needs to be better for everyone. We need to all be safe online, not just those of us who know how to protect ourselves or are lucky enough to never be targets. We need it to be a priority of the bigger fish, of our governments and of our advocacy organisations. We deserve to be safe.