How to make the internet a safer space for women
Riding the new wave of digital activism, women and girls are using internet platforms to collectively mobilise and amplify their voices against social injustices. Examples include the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements against gender-based violence, which gained momentum globally. However, both the activists and the movements have been targeted by sexist cyber-attacks.
The internet cannot remain an open and democratic space unless all those who want to raise their voice on the platform can do so without fearing for their safety and well-being. This calls for a need to deliberate on how we can work together to make the internet a safe space for all, particularly for women and girls.
Silencing movements and the voices of women is not a new phenomenon, but it has been amplified through digital platforms. Online harassment often translates into offline impacts and consequences, with much documented evidence in this regard. A few examples from Pakistan, which we are all well-familiar with include: defamation charges and strong online backlash faced by Meesha Shafi for calling out a male colleague for harassment, misinformation campaigns and false blasphemy allegations against the organisers of Pakistan’s annual Aurat March, and the unfortunate murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch.
Online violence and hate speech can have grave consequences on the meaningful online participation of women and girls. A recent consultation on online gender-based violence by the World Wide Web Foundation shows that online abuse can “silence, discredit, and censor women’s voices online” and may lead women to leave digital spaces altogether. The report states:
“If this issue is not addressed urgently, the web will remain as one more medium in which women, and particularly women from marginalised communities, are attacked and have their voices suppressed, instead of being the platform that amplifies gender equality and spearheads positive change that we know it can be”.
Slow progress on digital rights
According to research by the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, an important factor in the persistence of online violence and hate speech is the moral policing of women and gender minorities in online spaces. While action against cyber-violence and online hate speech is gaining momentum in developed countries, and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Digital Services Act gives citizens greater control over their data in Europe, progress has been slower in developing countries. Even in the European Union (EU), differences in the definition of online harassment and approaches across member states makes it difficult to take coordinated action against online violence against women.
In 2016, Pakistan’s parliament enacted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which offered the legal framework to “define various kinds of electronic crimes, mechanisms for investigation, prosecution and adjudication in relation to electronic crimes”. The head of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) cybercrime zone Sindh, Imran Riaz, recently took to social media, to remind users of the legal consequences under PECA of taking photos and videos without consent and sharing them on social media, which include three years in prison or Rs. 1million in fine or both. This came as a response to the online hate speech and abuse against a Pakistani actress when a nonconsensual video of her smoking went viral.
However, there are still more efforts needed for the successful implementation of the legislations protecting digital rights. For-instance, the experiences and joint statements by female journalist show that the legislation and authorities have so far failed to grant women journalists the protections offered under the law as they continue to face gendered-based online violence, including harassment, trolling, and coordinated abuse campaigns. The #AttacksWontSilenceus campaign also aimed to bring attention to these prevalent cyber-attacks.
A roadmap for a safer internet for all
With the world becoming increasingly digital, it has become even more important to step up action for improving online safety so that everyone can participate equally in the opportunities made available by the internet.
Firstly, there is a need to create greater awareness and visibility around online gender-based violence. This can be done through special interest groups focused on digital and women’s rights and by supporting researchers, gender activists, and grassroots organisations working in related areas. Advocacy should also be directed towards holding governments and private stakeholders accountable for protecting the digital rights of users and citizens.
Secondly, the institutions and legislations for the protection of digital rights of citizens should be strengthened. Training should be provided to professionals, researchers, and practitioners on internet governance, with a focus on cyber-security and digital rights, and gendered challenges to both. This should include sharing knowledge of existing initiatives, best practices, legislation and measures for digital rights and data protection.
Thirdly, there needs to be more research on gender-based cyber-violence so that evidence-based policy actions can be implemented to make the internet safer for all users. Moreover, given that “what gets counted counts”, data collection should be improved and harmonised to quantify the extent of the problem.
The internet has become a lifeline for citizens in recent decades. However, it can only thrive if everyone has an equal chance to benefit from the opportunities it provides and to get their voices heard without feeling their safety, dignity and privacy threatened. Together, we can make the internet a safer and more inclusive digital space for all.