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A recent report, “Internet intermediaries and violence against women online” released by the Association for Progressive Communications for the End violence: Women’s rights and safety online project, analyses the policies and redress framework of the three major internet intermediaries: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, in regard to violence against women online.
This study focuses on the policies of three major internet intermediaries, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, with respect to violence against women online. The study aims to map the corporate policies of these intermediaries that allow identification, reporting and rectification of incidents of harassment or violence against women via the service that the intermediary provides. In addition to providing a detailed summary of the user policies relevant to this issue, the study also compares the impact and effectiveness of those policies against the framework of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It is designed to provide advocates and activists with detailed information about policies related to violence against women in order that they may utilise, and criticise, such mechanisms, and engage with internet intermediaries to improve avenues for redress against technology-related violence.
The attached case studies provide a detailed analysis of the user policies and redress frameworks of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It is clear from the case studies that, while approaches to violence against women differ between the companies, a number of overarching themes and trends can be distilled from the research. These include:
1. Reluctance to engage directly with technology-related violence against women, until it becomes a public relations issue. This suggests a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of violence against women online, and a lack of recognition of the responsibility of the intermediary to take measures to mitigate the frequency and seriousness of instances of violence and to provide redress.
2. Lack of transparency around reporting and redress processes, reflected in the lack of information about the processes available to victims of technology-related violence.
3. Failure to engage with the perspectives of non-North American/European women.
4. No public commitment to human rights standards or to the promotion of rights, other than the encouragement of free speech.
Nevertheless, internet intermediaries have taken some positive steps in recent years to improve their approach and reaction to issues of violence against women online, such as:
- Engagement with stakeholder groups
- Simplified and easily accessible reporting mechanisms
- Proactive steps to eradicate violence against women.
The companies analysed all take a prominent stance on the right to free speech. When confronted with difficult questions like how to promote women’s access to information and expression as well as their other human rights – such as freedom from discrimination and violence – they have erred on the side of unrestrained expression, often to women’s detriment.
The internet intermediaries analysed in this study have many failings when it comes to recognition of the role that their services play in facilitating violence against women, and their responsibility to provide avenues for redress against such behaviour. Nevertheless, it is clear that many of these failings stem not from a malicious disregard for women’s rights, but from a lack of awareness about the issue and of what steps can be taken to better promote women’s rights online.
How it was done
The case study for Facebook is divided into a few main sections: a critical analysis of main trends, charting the impact and effectiveness of the intermediary’s policies and procedures regarding VAW using the framework of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a detailed breakdown of the user’s policies and redress mechanisms, and the evolution of its approach to violence against women online. This research format was used for all three of the internet intermediaries, thereby providing a detailed analysis of their approach and efficacy in handling human rights violations in regard to online safety for women.
The questions on Compliance with the Principles led the researchers to make recommendations towards ensuring Facebook’s obligations to maintain human rights standards. The recommendations include making a public commitment to respect for women’s rights and human rights standards; taking a more a proactive stance against on violence against women; appointing a person responsible for handling reports related to VAW; and providing greater transparency about complaints processes. These recommendations are a few key suggestions out of many provided in the study in order to enhance online security for women and make it easier for users to report gender-related online violence.
The study also examines Facebook’s user policies, describing the site’s commitment to privacy and its reporting process for violations of privacy and human rights, as well as its approach to stopping violence against women. The study analyses Facebook’s section on Law Enforcement, detailing the site’s stance on working with law enforcement to maintain safety and prioritising what are considered as “credible” threats.
The case study for Twitter analyses the main trends of this intermediary by dissecting the impact and effectiveness of Twitter’s policies regarding violence against women. The study examines the procedures provided by Twitter, including analysis of the evolution of the site’s approach to violence against women, and provides recommendations for improving the online environment for women.
Like the other two internet intermediary studies, the analysis is based on questions corresponding with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It examines Twitter’s policy commitment and its efficacy for dealing with the issue of violence against women. After examination of Twitter’s user policies and reporting process for violations, it is apparent that the site emphasises that content is the sole responsibility of the user, and it is therefore ambiguous in its approach to violence against women. The reporting process is based on a “self-reporting model”, as users are able to click a report button, which the study shows in a graphic step-by-step example. The Guidelines for Law Enforcement and Non-US Law Enforcement are also examined in the study, showing Twitter’s process of engagement with others to facilitate access to justice. It is unclear, however, what type of reports have been filed or how the reported complaints are handled.
Examination of Twitter’s user policies and the reporting process for violations brings to light the gaps in the intermediary’s approach to violence against women. The research is followed by recommendations for the site to improve its privacy and user policy in order to maintain safety for women online. A key recommendation is to increase transparency in its reporting process.
The case study for YouTube was conducted using desk research and analysis of its corporate policies through the use of questions focusing on the intermediary’s compliance with human rights obligations. This case study differed from the other two intermediary case studies, however, with the addition of an interview with a YouTube representative.
After answering the compliance questions, the study provides recommendations based on the gaps identified in YouTube’s approach to violence against women. The study continues with an analysis of YouTube’s reporting process based on the type of complaint that is being submitted. The report also provides YouTube’s Terms of Service in regard to harassment and cyber bullying, hate speech, threats and violent or graphic content.
It became apparent that there are some gaps in YouTube’s handling of content-related and privacy-related complaints. Although the Terms of Service provides a technical procedure for filing a complaint or gender-related issue, the redressing aspect remains unclear. The study also notes YouTube’s requirement for an individual to have an account with Google in order to flag and report content, which potentially poses a challenge for an individual who does not have an account.
This research is part of the APC “End violence: Women´s rights and online safety” project funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS) and is based on a strong alliance with partners in seven countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, and Philippines. For more information visit GenderIT.org and Take Back the Tech!