Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Counting the Cost

There are several reasons why I don't think campaigning for a report button on Twitter is a good idea. Chief among them - yet barely addressed - is the fact that this is fig leaf politics. It's enabling business leaders and politicians to wriggle out of a much bigger problem, which is this: who is going to pay to fix our broken society and why should women and minorities pay for the cost of leaving it the way it is?

First of all, let me clarify that I am not without sympathy for those who have been hurt by threats made against them online. Whilst I think we need to exercise caution in policing slurs, a threat that places somebody in a state of fear and alarm (or which a reasonable person would assume could do so) would, in other circumstances, be considered a crime, and I don't see why it being made online should be seen as making it less serious. I should note that I've received any number of rape and death threats in my time and I have generally laughed them off (most are, all else aside, terribly badly written), but that's me. I'm not easily intimidated in that way, but we don't say it's okay to go around shoving people in the street because the stronger ones won't fall over. I note that most people saying everyone should laugh this off are not members of those groups who can expect to be threatened in person on a frequent basis. Many women and members of minority groups experience that daily; they may find it hard to brush off online threats if they've been raped and assaulted in the past.

That said, I also have some sympathy for certain kinds of trolling - not the sorts that terrify people but the sorts that aim to provoke people for socially or politically important reasons. We have always needed contrary voices in order to enhance public discussion. Often it is only through this kind of provocation that radical perspectives come to be heard at all, and even if some of it seems inept, our society is richer for it. Furthermore, there are groups out there whose very existence is seen as provocation. I worry for the future of my charity if a report button happens because I know there are people out there who would constantly report it as being offensive simply for advocating that trans people have a right to decent treatment. It wouldn't matter if each instance of complaint was dismissed; if it happened frequently enough, we would not be able to communicate using Twitter. The same could go for any number of socially and politically focused organisations, and indeed for feminist advocates who attract the ire of certain groups of men.

Ultimately, though, what worries me most is that a report button - and similar approaches elsewhere - will allow a symbolic gesture to shut off debate in a really important area. Adding a button does not guarantee that Twitter, or any other organisation, will devote any more resources to following up complaints, or doing so promptly. Facebook has report buttons and yet remains notorious as a home for groups discussing rape and violence. Adding a button or clicking a button will not make the problem go away, it will just boost corporate PR.

Worse than this is the political jumping on the bandwagon (and here I do not include politicians like Stella Creasy who have been campaigning on related issues for a long time). This is a boost for David Cameron's equally ill-thought-out internet porn filter scheme. It allows politicians to look as if they care about violence against women without ever putting their money where their mouths are. If Cameron gave a damn, he wouldn't have taken funding away from battered women's shelters.

Here's the crux of the problem: misogyny wasn't invented by the internet. It may sometimes take more exaggerated forms there but the real reason it's becoming a political issue is not that there's more of it, it's that women are able to raise their voices, en masse, in protest. Projects like Everyday Sexism have helped to demonstrate the scale of the problem, online and off. Men who used to keep their hatred within all-male groups are now expressing it where women can observe it, and are having to contend with the fact that women don't like it. Hence all the nonsensical attempts to drown out women's voices in the name of free speech.

Ever since our society started to recognise that women are human beings with a right to expect the same opportunities in life as men, our society has been heading towards this confrontation. We have reached a point where it is no longer possible to ignore the aggression that many women routinely face from many men. We need to have a social solution, a cultural solution, a political solution - and there will be no persuading women to return to the meek days of accepting their fate. But what really makes this frightening for politicians is that we need an economic solution.

Every debate about dealing with misogyny stops short when it comes to finance. We are at a point where we don't need hand wringing and sympathetic speeches, we need serious investment. We need the police to be adequately funded to follow things up every time a credible threat or rape or violence is made, every time a woman is groped on a bus, every time she faces sexual harassment in a workplace that fails to take action. Restricting follow-up to high threshold cases isn't good enough. It isn't good enough because there is a cost to all this freewheeling abuse and right now women (along with other targeted groups like gay people) are bearing all of that cost themselves. Ultimately, the question must be why our society thinks it's okay for half its members to bear the whole of this cost rather than everyone paying their share, fairly, through the tax system, through government action to tackle the problem.

The same applies when it comes to child protection. We get endless soundbites and new schemes to encourage reporting. We don't see the organisations things are reported to getting anything like adequate resources for follow-up. Once again, one group is left to pay the price, in suffering, of society's failure to put its money where its mouth is.

The real reason very little is done to tackle misogynistic aggression is that it's so endemic the cost would be huge. That's a tough thing for politicians to take on, but what they need to understand is that the cost of doing nothing is also huge. Those who are paying it now will not put up with that forever. They are voters too, and politically, they are waking up to this. They will not be placated for long by being given buttons. It is time for real action.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Protection Racket

The latest wave of moral panic around protecting children has inspired David Cameron to announce that, from the latter part of this year, all ISPs will be required to use a opt-in system where users only get access to adult content if they register first. Aside from the general unworkability of this, his evident cluelessness about the technical issues involved and the massive concerns about state control of content that it raises, there's another important point that needs to be addressed, and that's that in some cases, it will do the very opposite of protecting children - it will leave them cut off from resources they desperately need.

It was in the early 'nineties that I first became aware of what filtering out 'adult' content actually means. At that point I was helping to maintain a safer sex advice website and I was shocked when we were told it was being blacklisted by several search engines which deemed it pornographic. There were no images on the site apart from logos and everything was written in a very plain style, with nothing intended to titillate (rather than getting people excited we wanted them to stop and think). But there were those words, 'sex' and 'sexual', and there was some discussion of taboo body parts, and that was enough.

When I got angry about this, a colleague suggested that I look into the status of another site I wrote for, which was aimed at young LGBT people and had no sexual content at all. Sure enough, I discovered this was blocked too. And it wasn't just because certain terms ended in '-sexual' - further research showed that some search engines blocked on the basis of words like 'gay' and 'lesbian', as a matter of course.

Two decades on, much has improved. It's probable that most ISPs will have the sense to keep general LGB sites accessible, at least once the problem is pointed out to them. These sites can be a vital resource to young people facing daily hostility at home or at school. But what about trans people in the same situation? It is, sadly, still the case that the most heavily promoted sites using the terms 'transsexual' and 'transgender' are pornographic. Search engines have got savvy about this but a lazy ISP will find it much easier simply to deem everywhere with those terms 'adult', leaving vulnerable young people without anywhere they can find support, community or access to vital health information.

If the proposed filters come into operation, it is probable that every site on safer sex will have to fight to remain accessible, and the evidence shows us that it is young people who are most in need of the information these sites carry. Furthermore, it will be harder for young people facing sexual abuse to access support online. I can remember how I felt when Childline started, how I wished it had been there for me. There are now lots of places that offer children help but lots are needed, as not every child will be comfortable with the same set of options and not every child will look for help using the same kind of search terms. How many would end up disappearing due to the language they used?

Even when it comes to images, there are entirely appropriate reasons why, sometimes, children should have access to images of genitals. In some cases they're an appropriate part of conversations on safer sex; in others, they're important to helping young people feel comfortable about their bodies and recognise the diversity out there. They are particularly important for young intersex people trying to come to terms with bodily differences that doctors and family members may simply refuse to discuss. It is much better for young people to be able to access educational and support resources online than to rely on peer gossip or take a chance on trusting an adult to give advice when they are in a very vulnerable situation. School advisors and so on are not an adequate substitute because thy often lack training on trans and intersex issues.

By restricting access to legitimate resources, internet filters put already marginalised young people at even greater risk. Yes, online predation is a danger, but so are in-person abuse, bullying, isolation, unplanned pregnancy and lack of access to appropriate medical support. Among the few things research tells us about child molesters in general is that they seek out children who are poorly informed about sexual and bodily issues, and who lack confidence. Internet filters could easily make children more vulnerable in this way, too.

Of course it's possible that any successfully introduced filter will take account of these problems and invest the resources to make sure support and information sites are not affected. Given the history of this area, however, I'm not holding out much hope. Whilst I doubt Cameron's proposals will easily find solid form at all, it's important that we have this conversation, because current discussions are ignoring the complexity of child protection issues and ignoring the fact that the internet provides services that the state itself is failing to provide to certain groups. Any curtailment of access to information must be approached with extreme caution and this matters at least as much when it applies to children as when it applies to adults.