understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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it’s different for girls: the importance of recognizing and incorporating equality in discussions of Internet speech
By: jennifer barrigar

June 12, 2007


Kathy Sierra used to run her own blog, one that had attained No. 11 on the Technorati.com Top 100 list of blogs (as measured by the number of blogs that linked to her site). These days, however, when one logs on to Kathy Sierra’s blog Creating Passionate Users one is presented with a post from April 6, 2007 where she writes:

As for the future of this blog, I know I cannot just return to business as usual -- whatever absurd reasons have led to this much hatred for me (and for what I write here) will continue, so there is no reason to think the same things wouldn't happen again... and probably soon. That includes anything that raises (or maintains) my visibility, so I will not be doing speaking engagements--especially at public events.

Sierra first went public in March 2007 about threats she had received on her own and other sites that included: photos of her with a noose around her neck; photos of her with a muzzle over her mouth apparently smothering her; and violent and sexual messages that included her home address. She cancelled public appearances and has ceased blogging (at least for the time being).

Nor is this issue confined to the so-called blogosphere, as the recent controversy around AutoAdmit shows. (Anonymous) posters on AutoAdmit, which bills itself as “the most prestigious college discussion board in the world”, and an allegedly related web-based contest rating the “Most Appealing Women at Top Law Schools” featured photographs, personally identifiable information, sexually explicit and derogatory comments on a number of womyn. Some of these womyn spoke to Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post about the situation, alleging that the postings were not only personally but also professionally damaging.

As these incidents have garnered more attention, debates have primarily focused on the question of censorship versus free speech, with such attacks glossed over as an unfortunate side effect of (important) anonymous internet participation but ultimately unrepresentative of the majority of Internet readers/speakers. Where the issue of gender is put in the forefront, discussions have tended towards what Joan Walsh, writing at Salon.com, characterized as “…telling them to stop wearing such provocative outfits online, lest they get that they deserve.” Dahlia Lithwick, at Slate.com, suggests that discussions about the issue have too often been framed in terms of “are women tough enough?” or “are women playing victim.” Such approaches have the unfortunate effect of seeming to focus on gender, without ever truly examining the underlying equality implications of such actions.

Lithwick claims, in her article Fear of Blogging: why women shouldn’t apologize for being afraid of threats on the Web that “…the Internet has blurred the distinction between a new mom’s whimsical blog about the new baby and Malkin or Ann Althouse blogging about politics. The intent of these writers is totally different, but on the Internet, that difference evaporates.” Although Lithwick is arguing that not all womyn bloggers are public figures, in doing so she seems to accept that at least some bloggers are public in such a way that such attention(s) may not be entirely unexpected. In a similar vein, the operators of AutoAdmit commented in the Nakashima article in the Washington Post that “…some of the women who complain of being ridiculed on AutoAdmit invite attention by, for example, posting their photographs on other social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace.” In fact, it seems that the mere presence of a womyn in online spaces may be enough to attract unwanted attention -- a University of Maryland study of IRC chatrooms in 2006 found that female usernames received 25 times more threatening and sexually explicit messages than did those with male or ambiguously-gendered usernames – an average of 163 messages a day.

Existing remedies to these problems seem either non-existent or ineffective. A panel discussion , convened at Harvard University to discuss the issue of Internet Speech, focused extensively on the AutoAdmit issue. Much of the discussion revolved around what, if any, remedies might be available to the affected womyn and against whom they could be exerted. Various panelists suggested that the students might seek redress via: suits against the ISP and/or the website operators, from the individual posters themselves, from the individual universities under a claim that the posts constituted sexual harassment and the Universities had obligations under Title IX to take action against it, and through the medium of defamation or privacy torts.

The womyn affected have taken various forms of action already. Kathy Sierra reported her harassment to the police as well as going public about it online. Some of the womyn in the AutoAdmit conflict have hired Reputation Defender to try to address the issue. Joan Walsh admits that pervasive misogyny on the Web has impacted her own voice, but still concludes that “[a]nd yet, mostly, women on the Web just have to ignore it. If you show it bothers you, you’ve given them pleasure.” A 2005 Pew Internet & American Life Project report suggests that other womyn have internalized this lesson and are simply avoiding participation – the report, entitled How Women and Men Use the Internet, shows that participation in chat and discussion groups dropped by 11% between 2000 and 2005 due to womyn choosing not to participate.

I am concerned about these remedies, concerned that womyn’s options seem to be to fight an isolated and individual battle, to just “deal with it” or to walk away, silenced. I am concerned that the remedies offered all seem to be focused on individual situations and harm. By focusing on individuals and individual remedies, we may lose sight of the larger issue.

Dahlia Lithwick’s article examined the differences between offline and online communication and argued that there are quantitative differences at work when it comes to these kinds of attacks and threats. She concludes:

No woman should have to choose between writing – either personally or professionally – and being told that her family will be raped. Sadly, that appears to be the current choice. But the important inquiry isn’t whether she should drop out or not. Nor is it whether she should stop whining or keep screaming. Those questions are personal and subjective, and the answers will be as different as the writers who consider them. The better questions are: Are these threats serious? Why do they feel so serious? How often do they result in something serious? And what might we do about it? Gender differences are only the beginning of the important discussions – not the end of them.”

With all respect to Ms. Lithwick, gender differences may only be the beginning of the discussions, but they are a beginning that has neither been fully explored nor fully weighted in these debates. Gendered, sexualized threats are inherently serious, not only because of the violence or danger of it, but because of their impact on equality.

Another Washington Post article from April 2007 suggests that:

As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats. Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms..

The problem with looking at this issue through individual lenses is that while individual redress (of some limited kind and in some limited cases) may be available, in doing so we leave in place the existing norms that created the situation in the first place. When womyn are being singled out more and being subjected to greater and more sexualized violent harassment, we must continue to explore this issue. Not, as so many writers have done of late, to ask “how should womyn respond” but rather to question “where does this come from and what are its overarching effects?” In examining this issue, we become aware that the online environment has become a new, broader environment for these things to emerge, be expressed, proliferate and to some degree become accepted.

I must confess – I have no answers. Many issues come up in this discussion – free speech, fear of censorship, the importance of anonymity, and the problem of whether we can or should regulate the Internet. As we seek to weigh all the issues and arrive at some understanding – ideally some solution – it is imperative that we not forget to add to the mix and weight appropriately our social commitment(s) to equality and the recognition of the communal benefits of equality. Any solution that is arrived at without taking this into account will hinder the transformative potential of these new spaces just as the current gendered, sexualized violence and harassment is now doing.

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