The internet and new technologies provide countless opportunities for women’s empowerment, engagement and education. At the same time, digital tools are increasingly facilitating gender-based threats, harassment, assault and violence against women online. Internet intermediaries have an important role to play in detecting and redressing online violence against women. Yet the response of intermediaries to incidents of gender-based harassment online is too often defined by gendered assumptions and misconceptions about the nature of violence against women online and the tension between addressing online violence and protecting free expression. This series is produced as a part of APC’s End violence: Women’s rights and safety online project and will explore the responsibility of intermediaries to ensure that the internet is a space that empowers, rather than subjugates, women.

A key pillar of the internet freedom movement, and one promoted by prominent internet freedom organisations like Article 19, the European Digital Rights Initiative, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, and the Centre for Internet and Society, is the concept that internet intermediaries should be immune from liability for any content hosted on their sites. According to “digital rights activist Joe McNamee”, “[a]s well as undermining the fundamental rights of freedom of communication, privacy and right to a fair trial, [intermediary liability] is serving to create borders in the online world, undermining the very openness that gives the internet its value for democracy, and, indeed, for the economy.” The Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression for the UN Human Rights Council, the Organisation of American States, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have “all argued”: that protecting freedom of expression means that “no one who simply provides technical Internet services… should be liable for content generated by others”.

Yet there is a clear and important need for intermediaries to play a more active role in ensuring that they are not complicit in, and are combatting, the use of their platforms for the perpetration of gender-based harrassment and incitement to violence against women. In a context in which there are deeply ingrained gendered assumptions that result in the diminishing of women’s free expression rights in favour of broader claims to free speech, and where the concept of hate speech is a subjective and often manipulated one, what role can intermediaries play in both facilitating women’s free speech while enabling them to access the internet in an environment free from violence and harassment?

One potential way to negotiate these competing concerns is by moving from an approach that focuses on the liability of intermediaries, to once which focuses on the responsibility of intermediaries. By moving away from liability, which denotes a restrictive approach that endangers the free and open nature of the internet and implies a risk-based consideration, to responsibility, which infers a role defined by empowerment, positive action, and leadership, we can promote the important role of intermediaries in fostering positive attitudes and accountability online in a way that doesn’t lead to State manipulation or cooption.

Intermediary responsibility for combatting gender-based harassment infers that intermediaries take the following steps:

  • Promotion of positive gender attitudes and understandings;

  • Incorporation of women’s opinions and ideas into the design, implementation and evaluation of platforms and intermediary services;

  • Increased responsiveness to complaints or reports of violence against women online or gender-based harassment; and

  • The provision of remedies and avenues for redress against gender-based hate speech online.

Intermediary responsibility for gender-based harassment should be situated within a broader framework designed to comprehensively counter gender-based harassment and violence against women online. A useful framework within which to think about this is found in Internet intermediaries: dilemma of liability , a report published by free expression organization Article 19 in August 2013. Article 19 promotes a system of broad immunity for internet intermediaries but specifies a particular system to address hate speech and incitement to violence, discrimination and hostility online, and this system provides the pillars for a potentially workable approach to intermediary responsibility. Based upon the Article 19 proposals, there should be three avenues for redress available for invididuals subject to gender-based harassment:

  1. Individuals should be able to notify law enforcement authorities of incidences of incitement to hatred or violence against women, and have the confidence that such reports will be addressed in an effective and efficient manner. Ensuring that this is a viable avenue for redress will require the promotion of understandings about the nature and implications of violence against women online, and the criminalization of incitement to gender-based harassment and violence against women.

  1. Individuals should be able to notify the host or social media platform about suspected criminal content, and have the confidence that such reports will be addressed in an effective and efficient manner. The intermediary should remove the content at issue as an interim measure in line with their terms of service, and should notify law enforcement authorities.

  1. Individuals should have access to hotlines or ombudsmen that enable a woman to report gender-based harassment, and help them communicate with the intermediary or with law enforcement.

Each avenue – reports to law enforcement, to intermediaries and to independent ombudsmen or hotlines – should be adequate, accessible, effective, legitimate and involve women’s critical engagement and changes in attitudes.

The responsibility of intermediaries is central to ensuring that gender-based harassment and violence against women online is overcome and the internet remains a free and open space in which women can learn, share and grow. Focusing on intermediary liability risks increasing interference by the State and diminishing the enjoyment of freedom of expression for everyone, including women. Enabling intermediaries to abdicate any responsibility for the content produced and promulgated on their sites is equally destructive for the enjoyment of human rights online. By focusing on responsibility, we can empower individuals and intermediaries alike to work together to a mutually safe, secure, free and open internet.

“No to Violence Against Women” competition logo. The picture credit UN Women .

Responses to this post

The word “responsibility” is not a good one, because it conceals a deeper questïon: responsible to whom or what? It would be better perhaps to say that the intermediaries should be “accountable” – and to immediately add “to international standards of human rights”. This points directly then to limitations as being exceptional, and of the principles of necessity, proportionality, etc.

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