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?