Return of the Pink Internet

About a decade ago, lawprof Danielle Citron pushed for the notion of Cyber Civil Rights. Her argument was as simple as it was circular. When a woman expressed her opinion on the internet, she was too often met with a critical response from men.

Sometimes the response was threatening, most notably in words of sexualized violence. Sometimes it was just critical, but in tones that hurt women’s feelings or made them feel uncomfortable. The upshot was that this response caused women to self-censor, to silence themselves, rather than be “bullied” or “threatened” by disapproval.

This, Citron contended, violated the free speech of women, as they could not express themselves online without discomfort. The remedy was that women should be entitled to express their opinions, and men should respond with praise or nothing. The fix to provide women with their civil rights was to deny civil rights to men.

Or, to be somewhat less overt about it, at least word- and tone-police men so as to control their tendencies toward violence and unfemale-friendly responses. And since women couldn’t, by definition, defend themselves from bad male words, it was up to their allies and white knights to protect their virtue by coming to their defense. The women would point at their oppressor and their true allies would leap into action to silence those men whose mean words silenced women.

If much of this sounds vaguely familiar, even though not quite as openly expressed, there are many who have taken Citron’s CCR approach to heart. At the same time, women have learned to be as offensive as men, and men are just as offensive to each other as they are to women, though most men manage to withstand the pressure of some random doofus calling them a mean name rather than collapsing in tears at the horror of it all.

Still, there remain the fragile feminists for whom the ability to shrug off mean words, or give as good as they get, isn’t sufficient. So it’s time for another round.

Like too many women, I’ve been harassed online. The harasser described in explicit detail how he intended to violate me, though somehow his threats didn’t violate Twitter’s terms of service. Twitter, despite my repeated reports, did nothing.

So I did. I gradually tightened my privacy settings across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I mostly stopped sharing personal, nonwork-related updates and deleted photos of my children; I haven’t posted new pictures for more than a year.

I’m a tech journalist, so perhaps I am extra-sensitive to the dangers of the internet. But my concerns are widely shared by other women.

One of the marvels of the internet is that anyone gets to play there. There’s no sanity test. There’s no intelligence test. Anybody with a keyboard and internet access can join in the game. While Bloomberg’s Emily Chang tells us she’s been “harassed,” she doesn’t quite say what happened or why. She says “his threats” didn’t offend the Twitter gods, which is curious given their exceptional sensitivity toward blue-ticked women like Chang. Maybe it was disgusting and vicious, which wouldn’t be a surprise.

There are some sick, twisted people on social media. We’ve all met them. Many of us are the recipients of their attacks. It comes with the turf. It’s true that guys don’t tend to get threatened with rape, but we get threatened with murder and beatings on occasion. We get people calling jobs, filing grievances, spreading lies and more. We get told to shut up, called racist, sexist, cuck, libtard, Nazi. But not rape, as least as far as my experience goes.

Several studies have found that women are more concerned about privacy risks online than men and are more likely to keep their profiles private and delete unwanted contacts. Female Italian college students are less likely to share their political views and relationship status than men and are more concerned about risks posed by other users and third parties. Norwegian women post fewer selfies than Norwegian men.

Chang’s evidence doesn’t quite show what she wants it to show. Aside from being underwhelming evidence of anything, it mostly demonstrates that women are more fragile than men. They are more easily frightened and react disproportionately to any hint of fear. As an aside, this might be a good reason not to let women be police officers with guns to kill anyone perceived as a threat.

But from this weak sauce, Chang reaches her point.

In other words, digital privacy is a women’s issue. We just don’t think about it that way, or discuss it that way. Of course, privacy is a concern for everyone, but this is also an issue, like health care, on which women have a particular view. Women know, for example, what consent really means. It’s not scrolling through seemingly endless “terms of service” and then checking a box. Online consent, just as it is with our bodies, should be clear, informed and a requirement for online platforms.

To the extent there is anything approaching logic in there, it’s a women’s issue because, well, it makes them uncomfortable. Don’t they have a right to not experience any discomfort? To feel safe? To enjoy social media without having to use the same level of thoughtfulness, and suffer the equivalent degree of nastiness as everyone else?

And this is where Chang, like Citron before her, tries to gloss over the circularity of her tears and seek redress at the hands of the kind and omni-present government, whose gentle hand will protect and comfort her female hurt.

With Congress considering whether to draft new privacy regulations, it is important that the specific concerns of women be taken into account now, while the rules are being debated.

Pink laws for the internet? Who will champion this cause for the overly sensitive?

So what can Americans do? First, we must elect more women to positions of power who can help write privacy legislation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the top digital policymakers in Europe are women, including Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s competition commissioner, and Elizabeth Denham, Britain’s information commissioner.

Just a wee bit sexist to assume all women share Chang’s cry of fragility and support the notion of a Pink Internet, where no woman should suffer the indignity of discomfort. You know, like the rest of us?

23 thoughts on “Return of the Pink Internet

  1. Rich

    “First, we must elect more women to positions of power who can help write privacy legislation”. Cool, glad to know we aren’t in a rush to fix this and can just hang out for a few election cycles.

    Reply
  2. wilbur

    I find it interesting that the alleged right not to suffer the indignity of discomfort is termed “privacy”. I don’t see the connection between “privacy” as it’s normally understood and thrusting one’s life, opinions and selfies into the public online arena.

    Sexist louts would suggest if you can’t keep up with the dogs, stay on the porch. So wilbur doesn’t suggest that.

    It would be nice everyone would play nice on the internet. The good ship Nice never left the dock.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Trying to shoehorn her complaint into some sort of “right to privacy,” even though no such generic right exists, is easier than arguing for the creation of a special right for women to speak without mean men hurting their feelings.

      Reply
      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        Women used to have that special right, it was called chivalry. Whose idea was it, to get rid of that? What cis-hetero shitlord came up with the idea that women should have the same rights and responsibilities as men?

        Reply
          1. wilbur

            I assert my right to privacy to not be exposed to teenagers from 45+ years ago awkwardly trying to dance to an undanceable song.

            My feelings count too.

            Reply
            1. Pedantic Grammar Police

              I call your awkward teenagers and raise the host rocking out in front of a TV set at 1:40.

  3. Skink

    There’s some confabulation in play. Women should make the rules because people say mean things and the nets pose physical risk to women because privacy. They aren’t the same issues, but she doesn’t so much as nudge her foot toward the clutch when shifting gears. So the fat assumption lays there: net mean and real-life stalking are the same thing.

    Can’t use What’s App without a phone number and Lyft puts the passenger’s first name on a sign? Those are reasons for some amorphous privacy thingamajig? Buried in that is another unstated assumption: the right to use those things. It seems a given that because some service or site exists, people have the right to use it the way they want and the government should see to just that.

    Ms. Chang wants a nicer net for women. She can set one up. She can put the servers in a safe spot atop some Smokey Mountain hill. She can make all the rules. I’ve been thinking of doing something like that–I’ll open a bar called Nicely’s. It has only nice people; not-so-nice and sarcastic people may not appear. Those is depossessed from the premises. I figure it’s 8-5 against being open for more than a week, so I’m hedging with a plan for a biker bar.

    Reply
      1. Skink

        That throws a wrench in everything. I wasn’t planning on selling good whiskey. Tell me, are people entitled to good whiskey in my bar?

        Reply
  4. Raccoon Strait

    There is a way for all women to achieve their non-interlaced dual goals of privacy and not being treated badly by mean people online, some of whom might be men and some of whom might be women disguised as guys. All they need to do is reach for the off button on their computer.

    Of course, they will say, ‘what? and not be able to participate in the greatest communication system yet devised by humankind’? Well, yeah. If your going to stick your feet in the water, expect to get wet.

    They can control their privacy by not using social media. They can protect their privacy by using pseudonyms online. They can protect their privacy by religiously using a VPN to mask their IP address. They can protect their privacy by not giving out personally identifying information. What they cannot control is how anyone, anywhere will react to the things they put out on the Internet for anyone to see.

    They can control their reactions to what people say about the things the put out on the Internet. They can learn to be mean back. They can learn to be meaner back. They can learn to be moderate back in the face of any unreasonableness. Or, they can act like a duck in a rainstorm where the water just rolls off their backs. They can open their own forums where the moderation decisions are made by like minded people. The problem with only talking to like minded people is that it is difficult to learn in an echo chamber. It is also difficult to teach when everyone else realizes that it is an echo chamber and even the slightest veering off the path of the true believers will be relegated to the sound absorption room, and the only ones you ‘teach’ are those that are already on board with you.

    Learning to communicate, that is the sending and receiving of information, is hard. It is often the listening part that is most difficult as those noises in our heads are always more clear that those noises outside our heads. Especially when those outside noises are things that are going to make one sad.

    Reply
    1. Guitardave

      ” It is often the listening part that is most difficult as those noises in our heads are always more clear that those noises outside our heads. Especially when those outside noises are things that are going to make one sad.”
      …and then sad moves into batshit crazy when all the noises in your head are dissonant to any made in reality.

      Reply
  5. Elpey P.

    Someone should take some choice highlights of her article, republish them as-is using a man’s name, and link to the new article with a disparaging tweet on feminist Twitter. The results would probably be illuminating.

    Reply
  6. Jeff

    Simple Justice is the first page on the internet where I’ve felt the need to use my real name. Or, alternately, where I’ve not felt the need to conceal my real name. I haven’t felt safe to say whatever I want or feel online, as if I was, I would not have hidden behind a pseudonym.. Maybe I wasn’t at risk of rape, but the idea of harassment over the internet following into the real world is not a new thing.

    As such, I’ve always kept certain details out of the public eye; marital status, location, even sex as the chosen pseudonym was usually not gender specific.

    My point in all this is that as far as I know, nothing on the internet requires you to identify yourself, and it’s still true that nobody will know you’re a dog unless you choose to tell someone.

    Maybe it’s because I don’t have an illustrious career on a blog telling people what they should feel about things (this is not a direct comment on yourself, Mr Greenfield), but I don’t see this as anything but a tempest in a teapot. If you don’t want people saying bad things about your woman-ness, don’t tell them you’re a woman. It doesn’t apply here.

    But then maybe that’s because I’m a cisgender shitlord or something.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Way back when, in the early days of the blawgosphere, I wrote about how it was the great equalizer. Nobody knew if you were young or old, black or white, male or female, gay or straight. And nobody cared. You were as good as your mind allowed. It was glorious not to ever give a damn about any of it. Got something good to say, you were appreciated and at home. Nothing else mattered.

      I still don’t care, but then, I never did.

      Reply
  7. Gretz

    Since you mentioned it, would you happen to know what the ratio of “reasonably scared female cops” to their participation in the law enforcement, or are they by and large made of sturdier stuff than their male cohorts?

    (I looked but didn’t find a good analysis, yet.)

    Reply
  8. Julia

    I think, what Emily Chang is trying to say is “if somebody voiced an unpopular opinion online, they can be doxxed and face a real physical threat”. But since she’s talking to her digital echo chamber on social networks, it becomes a “woman safety issue”, conflates “sexual harassment” with privacy and is cryptic for an outsider.

    My unpopular opinion is that journalism should be divorced from the social networks for the sake of clarity.

    Reply

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