So last week I talked about the UN Broadband Commission's "Cyber Violence Against Women And Girls" Report. After looking at some of their sources, and after some more thought, I think I was too uncritical of it. So, I'd like to make a few more observations about why it's troubling to me as a free speech advocate. After that, I'll briefly address why I didn't do better in the first place.
The UN As A Vehicle For Human Rights Abuse
In my first post I already explained why I think we must carefully scrutinize any UN-promoted restriction on speech: the UN has a very mixed record on speech and is heavily influenced by forces that promote a "balance of interests" approach or even a "no blasphemous speech" approach.
I should have emphasized that it's worse than that. The UN and other multinational organizations are increasingly plagued by authoritarian regimes trying to set up ostensibly neutral rules that would allow them to suppress dissent. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia recently pushed for a UN agency to have more authority over the internet, and in turn cede that control to member states. This would make it much easier for totalitarian regimes to stop online dissent and find dissenters. Also, I did not emphasize clearly enough that the global experience with blasphemy law shows that it is disproportionately used against ethnic and religious minorities in countries with authoritarian governments, and should be seen less as a sincere effort to protect the good name of Mohammed and more as a way to increase state power over those minorities.
In short, when it comes to potential speech restrictions, working with the UN carries substantial risk that the rules you propose will be used abusively by the strong against the weak, and by totalitarian governments against dissenters. If you find that improbable, consider what use, say, Saudia Arabia could make of a very flexible international norm against online "harassment," given their brutal enforcement of narrow sexual norms.
Wait, LYNDON LaRouche? Lyndon LAROUCHE?
In my first post I noted and expressed concern about the report's odd assertion about the relationship between video game and movie violence and real world violence:
There is widespread representation of VAWG in mainstream culture, including in contemporary and popular music, movies, the gaming industry and the general portrayal of women in popular media. Recent research on how violent video games are turning children, mostly boys, into ‘killing zombies’ are also a part of mainstreaming violence. And while the presentation and analysis of this research is beyond the scope of this paper, the links to the core roots of the problem are very much in evidence and cannot be overlooked.
But I didn't read the footnote and look at what they cited for that proposition. Always read the footnotes! The footnote leads us to this monstrosity, a mish-mash of every 1990s trope about how movies and games are turning our kids into killers, combined with 1980s tropes about Dungeons & Dragons, not to mention tropes about psychiatric treatment:
It may well be that the children on Ritalin, on Prozac, Luvox, and other psychiatric drugs, are walking human time bombs.
This is a real thing, in the article, which is cited as support for that "killing zombies" remark in the UN report:
In a press release Feb. 1, 2000, Midway Games reported the “top ten in killer games,” that is, the leading U.S. video-game sofware companies, as ranked in order of their unit sales:
1. Nintendo of America, Inc.: Manufactures Pokémon, Game-Boys, and equipment for satanic video games.
2. Electronic Arts, Inc.: Produces Road Rash, which features a hit and run, criminal assault on police.
3. Sony Computer Entertainment: Equipment for satanic video games. Was a defendant in the lawsuit on behalf of the three girls killed by video game addict Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old shooter in Paducah, Kentucky.
4. Midway Home Entertainment: Mortal Kombat, Doom, Quake.
5. THQ, Inc.: Summoners, which deals with evil sorcerers, satanic monsters.
6. Acclaim Entertainment: Hard Core Wrestling (such as nails in head, strangulation), Hard Core Revolution, and Real F’n Wrestling.
7. 989 Studios (Sony): Produces Everquest. (In this, followers of the god Cazic-Thule inflict “pain, misery, violence, torture, living sacrifice.”
8. Activision, Inc.: Soldier of Fortune (assassination, race war).
9. Namco Ltd.: Soul Calibur. In this, “The Evil Seed is loose, threatens to swallow souls in its chilling wake.”
10. Hasbro Interactive: Official U.S. distributor of Pokémon (abbreviation for “Pocket Monsters”), the killing game designed for toddlers beginning at 2 and 3 years old; Dungeons and Dragons, the medieval satanic and magic fantasy game; Risk II, a “ruthless quest for world domination". One of the Hasbro Board members is Paul Wolfowitz, the co-head of George W. Bush’s team of foreign policy advisors.
The source is written by Michele Steinberg, a former fraud codefendant of Lyndon LaRouche, whose obsession with the just-a-coincidence-they're-Jewish ""Wolfowitz cabal" infects even her discussion of video games.
The report is full of other footnote foolishness as well (like citing a file on somebody's hard drive as a source). But this citation . . . well. As some advocates have criticized how women are treated in video games and online, they've faced claims that they aren't just hostile to bad behavior, they're actually hostile to the whole hobby of gaming and to its entire culture. It's hard to imagine how the UN Broadband Commission could have done a better job making that narrative more credible. Steinberg's article is a shotgun blast of crazy discredited nonsense and culture-nannying dressed (utterly unconvincingly) as science. I will spare you the parade of links showing (1) how violent crime trended down strongly while movies got more violent and video games got more everywhere, (2) how schools are safer than they have been in years, and (3) how multiple studies disclaim a connection between movie or game violence and real-world violence.
This is the equivalent of submitting a serious proposal to Congress advocating for changes in the federal budget and, for the proposition that the NASA budged should be reduced, linking to sites that claim that the moon landing was faked.
One bad citation wouldn't normally destroy the credibility of an entire report. If any one can, this one does. It's used to support a drop-in that violent movies and video games are something the UN might want to look at. It is so freakishly inappropriate that I can only imagine four scenarios: (1) there are no sensible people involved in the preparation and approval of the report, (2) any sensible people involved with the report did not read the report any more carefully than I did, (3) the people behind the report believe this Jack Thompson/Tipper Gore/Jack Chick malarkey, or (4) the people behind the report don't particularly care about the reliability of the sources for their pronouncements. Whichever one is true, I wish I could take a mulligan on calling it a "thoughtful approach to a serious problem." But I did what I did.
Expansion of the Meaning of Words
In my prior post I noted that the report had some strong rhetoric, but didn't spent much time questioning it. As Scott Greenfield pointed out I didn't ask how the Commission was proposing to define "cyber violence." I didn't ask that because it seemed like a pointless project; absent some specific new law or policy to which the definition would apply, it's a theoretical exercise.
But then I remembered that I've groused before about how our rhetorical approach to categorizing speech can have long-term effects on how we think about whether it should be permitted and even on how we treat it legally.
Seen from that perspective — that the report is not offering mere hot air, but proposed norms — it's considerably more troubling than I suggested.
Here's how the report at page 6 defines cyber violence against women and girls, or Cyber-VAWG:
Cyber VAWG includes hate speech (publishing a blasphemous libel), hacking (intercepting private communications), identity theft, online stalking (criminal harassment) and uttering threats. It can entail convincing a target to end their lives (counselling suicide or advocating genocide). The Internet also facilitates other forms of violence against girls and women including trafficking and sex trade. Not only does commercialized sex on the Internet drive the demand for the sex industry overall, it also allows traffickers to use the legal aspects of commercial sex on the Internet as a cover for illegal activities. Some of the main uses of the Internet by traffickers include: advertising sex, soliciting victims on social media, exchanging money through online money transfer services, and organizing many of the logistical operations involved in transporting victims.
Let's take these one at a time.
"Cyber VAWG includes hate speech (publishing a blasphemous libel)." This is rather incoherent. Does "hate speech" refer to hateful speech about women as a class of humans? It's not clear — and in America, the only "hate speech" against women that would fall outside the protections of the First Amendment would be speech falling into traditional exceptions: true threats, incitement to imminent serious harm, and so forth. What's "blasphemous libel?" Well if anyone would know, it would be the Canadians, but it seems even they don't.
"Identity theft:" well, sure, identity theft is illegal, and can be used to harass. I'm not sure that it's more a concern for women than for others, even online. And I'd want to point out that a satirical account in someone else's name, used to mock them, is protected speech, not "identity theft."
"Online stalking (criminal harassment):" Yes, both harassment and stalking can be criminal. Under U.S. law, at least, it requires proof of repeated unwelcome contact with intent to put the target in fear.
"Uttering threats." Yes, true threats are illegal. That means threats that a reasonable person would take as a serious statement of intent to do harm.1
"It can entail convincing a target to end their lives (counselling suicide or advocating genocide)." Well, trying to convince someone to kill themselves is horrific and can be a crime outside the First Amendment. Talking about genocide is something completely unrelated, and under U.S. law is only a crime if it involves a true threat or incitement to imminent lawless action.
"[Sex trafficking discussion]" Well, sex trafficking certainly can involve terrible abuse of girls and women. But the assertion that criminalizing prostitution protects women generally is, and should be, a subject of vigorous debate. Also, note how the passage about sex work treats money transfer and advertising as part of violence against women.
Why would you call something "violence," when it's not violent? Usually it's to co-opt the legal and social norms associated with violence. It's like when you re-define "terrorism" so broadly that you can use the resources and power of the anti-terrorism fight to, say, police DVD piracy.
I'm fine with improving our ability to detect, stop, and punish true threats, which I think are legitimately termed violence. Harassment and stalking, given a principled definition, are at least violence-adjacent. I'm fine with problems like identity theft being treated seriously. But — here, even before specific laws have been proposed — I'm skeptical about and hostile to the expansion of the word "violence" in an effort to dramatically increase anyone's police power, let alone the UN's.
Through her work with Feminist Frequency as the star of a video series critiquing depictions of women in the media, including video games, Sarkeesian also found herself caught up in the GamerGate firestorm. "I have been a target for three years non-stop," she told those in attendance, "of egregious online harassment in all levels."
She defined this as not just the violence that the group has formed to combat, but also the "day-to-day grind of ‘You're a liar,' ‘You suck' … making all of these hate videos on a regular basis to attack us and the mobs that come from those hate videos."
Some of the abuse Sarkeesian has described constitutes unlawful true threats and actual harassment and stalking. Not all of it does. Calling her a liar or saying she sucks is protected speech, unless it's directed in repeated unwelcome communications directly to her (like phone calls and emails). Videos saying that she sucks are also protected by the First Amendment, unless they contain true threats or incitement to imminent lawless action. This is not the first time she has conflated genuine threats of violence with criticism (as have some of her detractors, in the other direction).
I was right in saying that we need to scrutinize any specific proposed laws or policies that arise from this report. But I was wrong to downplay the rhetoric as mere rhetoric, and to say it was premature to criticize it. On a more serious look, the report's rhetoric suggests an effort to use the language of violence to cover non-violent and protected conduct. That is of particular concern since it is directed at the UN.
Those are not the only things wrong with the report, but those are the ones that strike me most forcefully. In discussing the Commission's references to foreign concepts of free speech, its invocation of zero tolerance, its suggestion that companies would be required to abide by particular codes, about how industry codes can be used against the people they are supposed to help, and by noting that the report relies on questionable sources about "revenge porn" law, I was right.
It's Easy To Get It Wrong.
I screwed up. I didn't blow a closing argument or put the wrong pacemaker in someone or crash a car, but I offered my thoughts without exercising due care. The easy reason was that I rushed, because I was busy. The harder reason is that some of my attitudes colored my approach.
I expected that the report would not be read, that its contents would be overstated and distorted, and that it would be treated as an open and explicit call for censorship because of the people involved with it. I wasn't wrong to think that. But I was wrong to let that thought stop me from a more careful examination, and to allow myself to breeze by the implications of the rhetoric while looking for the specific proposals that weren't there. If I had looked at it from a "is this rhetoric bad or not" standpoint, instead of a "imagine the reaction to this" viewpoint, I would have gotten it right.
I'm likely to get things wrong again. I'll do my best to make them right again. And naturally, it would be pointless to write to please any audience.
Edited to add: I was invited to talk about this on CBC radio, with the results here. Be kind; it was 4:30 in the morning.
- Plus, at least, recklessness by the speaker as to whether it would be seen that way, and maybe intent that it be seen that way. ▲
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