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The UN says we need to 'wake up' and fight violence against women and girls online

Tech companies aren’t immune from 'social responsibility or from liability'

Broadband Working Group

The internet is being used as a tool "to inflict harm on women and girls," the United Nations declared today, in a powerful report that calls for worldwide action against rampant online violence that targets women. At stake: the safety and emotional well-being of women and girls — as well as "the digital inclusion of women everywhere."

Pegged as a "world-wide wake-up call," the report presents a staggering view of harm against women online. About one in three women worldwide will experience some form of violence in their lifetime, but the UN's new report takes that analysis one step further; it shows that 73 percent of women have already been exposed to violence online or have experienced it firsthand. Nine million women in 28 European countries have experienced online violence at ages as young as 15. Women who are victims of "cyber-violence against women and girls" (cyber-VAWG) also experience emotional and financial consequences through legal fees and missed wages, among other things, the UN report states. "Cyber-VAWG is emerging as a global problem with serious implications for societies and economies around the world." And because the internet is mobile, these threats are very difficult to avoid.

Internet gatekeepers must accept responsibility

Lots of people are responsible for online harassment, but the UN says some groups should accept more responsibility in fighting it — specifically, internet gatekeepers. In one instance, the UN even calls out Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg by name, stating that when a Facebook user's account was hacked, it took the site more than a month to take down the pornographic images that were posted on his page — but private photos of Zuckerberg were removed from Imgur, a photo-sharing site, "in a day."

The online harassment of women isn't a new phenomenon, but in the wake of movements like gamergate — a vicious and ongoing campaign against women and progressive voices — and the advent of "revenge porn," it certainly has gotten a lot more attention of late. Those in charge of major tech companies have already received more scrutiny as harassment has become more visible. In February, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted that "we suck at dealing with abuse," and that Twitter was losing users because of it.

73 percent of women have already been exposed to or have experienced violence online

The UN says tech companies need to step up and recognize "VAWG as unlawful behavior, and demonstrate increased and expedited cooperation in providing relief to victims / survivors within the capacities that companies have." That means cooperating with law enforcement, implementing takedown procedures, producing transparency reports, and making sure that the termination of abusers' accounts is possible. In the report, the UN calls out both Whatsapp and Facebook for putting the burden of safe practices on users, rather than taking that responsibility themselves. Of course, better tools to fight harassment on sites like Facebook aren't the only answer, and the UN calls for a broad approach to fighting the problem.

Legal means aren't available to everyone

The UN says governments must put in place and enforce sanctions against cyber-VAWG. Although some states are working to help victims of these acts, the legal protections for women who receive threats online or who have personal information and pictures distributed without their consent are few. Right now, law enforcement and courts are "failing to take appropriate action for cyber-VAWG" in 74 percent of the 86 countries surveyed by the World Wide Web Foundation. The UN is aware, however, that legal means aren't available to everyone. It's often the last resort for women — many acts of online abuse go unreported for fear of repercussions — and legal actions are usually only available to people with financial resources. That's why the organization's report is calling for a massive societal attitude adjustment; "a mere legal reform agenda alone centered on perpetrators or abusers would be limited in both its reach and impact."

Finally, the UN says regular people have to help fight violence by changing their attitudes. This means taking threats seriously (by listening to women), and making sure that children and teens — boys and girls alike — are educated about cyber-VAWG can prevent these acts from taking place. Police officers also need to be taught what online harassment means, so that they can address these issues with the gravity they deserve.

"Online crimes are not a ‘first world’ problem."

As an international organization, the UN also firmly states that "online crimes are not a ‘first world’ problem; they seamlessly follow the spread of the internet." To illustrate that point, the report points to countries such as South Africa, where viral rape videos "have become particularly commonplace."

Online violence has "subverted the original positive promise of the internet’s freedoms," UN Women’s Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a press release. "And in too many circumstances has made it a chilling space that permits anonymous cruelty and facilitates harmful acts towards women and girls." With this report, the UN strives to reclaim the opportunities that a free and safe internet can offer. "That means recognizing the scale and depth of the damage being done — and taking strong, concerted steps to call it — and stop it."