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What with the recent controversies surrounding #gamergate pushing the issue of online harassment into the limelight, we have started to see some interesting proposals and developments in the discussion which could have ramifications on some of our most important aspects of modern social and political freedoms of speech.
Which is the push for a redefinition of what is being perceived as online harassment. By Webster’s definition we have long since believed harassment to mean..

a :  exhaust, fatigue b (1):  to annoy persistently (2):  to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct 2 :  to worry and impede by repeated raids <harassed the enemy> — ha·rass·ernounha·rass·ment noun

But what we have begun to witness is a trend to redefine this meaning as a direct result of the events surrounding #gamergate. We have examples of people within the gaming industry and beyond advocating that a large amount of negative criticism now constitutes as harassment. As highlighted by TechRaptors own Andrew Otton earlier this month. But the question remains, how much evidence is there to back up these claims? As highlighted by a recent study from the Pew Research Centre on online harassment. Out of 3,000 Internet users, 44 percent of men and 37 percent of women had experienced some form of online abuse. But as we have seen from recent articles and promotions such as the recent potty mouthed princes at FCKH8.com and articles such as this Pew: Women Suffering Online Harassment Worse Than Men, we are now being presented with a narrative that does not accurately represent the reality. And by now any supporter of #gamergate would be familiar with these claims as they have formed the kernel of many of the arguments against #gamergate. With the announcement by Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian of her proposal for a Cyber Civil Rights bill, we see the signs of events coming into view that may touch all our lives. Especially for anyone who has worked for freedom of speech.

With the recent protests against SOPA and PIPA and similar internet bills in Europe, we find ourselves in a somewhat a strange situation with many of the people who normally would stand against any kind of restriction of freedom of speech, could actually be supporting it! From what we have seen of Ms Sarkeensian’s proposal it breaks down like this;

  1. SHAREABLE BLOCK LISTS
  2. ALLOW FRIENDS OF TARGETS TO REPORT HARASSMENT
  3. BLOCK ANY NEW ACCOUNTS
  4. OPTION TO BLOCK ANY USER WHO HAS BEEN BLOCKED BY PEOPLE YOU ARE FRIENDS WITH OR FOLLOWING
  5. OPTION TO AUTOBLOCK USERS WHO USE SPECIFIC KEYWORDS
  6. OPTION TO BLOCK ALL USERS WITH FEWER FOLLOWERS OR SUBSCRIBERS UNDER A THRESHOLD
  7. STATES NEED TO UPDATE STALKING LAWS TO INCLUDE HARASSING OR THREATENING COMMUNICATION
  8. CRIMINALISE THE NON CONSENSUAL PUBLISHING OF ANY SEXUALLY INTIMATE IMAGES OR VIDEO AS AN INVASION OF SEXUAL PRIVACY
  9. CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS NEED TO BE UPDATED TO CRIMINALISE THREATS MOTIVATED BY GENDER BIAS NOT JUST RACIAL
  10. PLAINTIFFS SHOULD BE ABLE TO SUE ABUSERS UNDER PSEUDONYMS IN CIVIL CASES TO PROTECT IDENTITY

To many who are supporting this, it is seen as helping to provide the victims of abuse more protection from online harassment. And many of these points do not seem unreasonable in any way. But as someone who has worked on social media platforms, and like many who are familiar with their operations, I feel these measures may well be a cause for concern. Especially for online activist communities and those who are concerned with free speech, and specifically how these measures would limit access of users on a site wide basis. The most concerning aspect from the images of Ms Sarkeesian’s presentation (taken by a member of the audience), is that we see that it is presented as being spread across all social networks. This would mean the intended effect is not meant to be isolated, but to cover all of the major social media outlets, and beyond through the use of APIs.

Andrew Alison Campaign Manager at The Freedom Association

Andrew Alison Campaign Manager at The Freedom Association

To get more insight on this issue TechRaptor spoke to Andrew Alison Campaign Manager at The Freedom Association, a non-partisan group fighting for freedom and expression, about this new definition of criticism.

  1. Could you tell us a little about your organisation and your approach to online matters of freedom of speech? ” The Freedom Association was founded in 1975. Our approach to online matters of freedom of speech (as well as offline) are guided by our seven principles of a free society. “
  2. How important do you feel freedom of speech is on social media platforms today? ” Freedom of speech is a vital component of a free society. The advent of the Internet has revolutionised the way we communicate. For me, if something is illegal offline, then the same should apply to online activities. The notion that we should be judged differently in the way we conduct ourselves using social media, is bizarre – and wrong.”
  3. Do you feel there is a limit to the amount of free speech we can have online, in relation to any online harassment? ” Both have to be judged in the same way. If you harass someone to their face; using the telephone or by letter, and what you do is illegal, then this should be illegal online too.”

And in regards to the very specific argument that criticism is now a form of harassment his response was.. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Politicians face a daily barrage of criticism in the media. They get it from newspaper columnists, on radio shows, on television news, as well as online. It’s not harassment just because it comes from a large group of people.  Many of the so-called “celebrities” who complain about abuse are the first people to use social media to promote what they want to promote. You can’t have it both ways. You have to take the knocks too.” “When anyone exercises their right to freedom of speech, it may come back to bite them. Others will disagree with your position and they may exercise their right to freedom of speech far more robustly. If some people are continually abusive and refuse to stop contacting someone despite being asked to do so, that should be constituted as harassment, as it would be offline, and that should be dealt with.” So from a civil liberties and legal standpoint being able to speak out publically in criticism of someone, or something, comes nowhere near the conventional form of harassment. And that any behaviour that does not fall within the confines of the law needs to be dealt with as such. Regardless of how many people respond or tweet a person in public, this should in no way be defined as harassment. So as we have seen with these proposals, and the misrepresentation of figures, there are still some sections of our society pushing forward with this agenda. And from my own experience of working with social media, many of the proposals put forward by Anita Sarkeesian, leave us with a few questions.

  1. SHAREABLE BLOCK LISTS

This would not stop any harasser if they are unknown to people who share the block list  

  1. ALLOW FRIENDS OF TARGETS TO REPORT HARASSMENT

This would not stop any harasser if they are unknown to friends  

  1. BLOCK ANY NEW ACCOUNTS

This is strange because there is no clarification how new accounts would be blocked  

  1. OPTION TO BLOCK ANY USER WHO HAS BEEN BLOCKED BY PEOPLE YOU ARE FRIENDS WITH OR FOLLOWING

This measure appears to have nothing at all to do with harassment. The net result would be people would block others who they have never interacted with or not even heard about  

  1. OPTION TO AUTOBLOCK USERS WHO USE SPECIFIC KEYWORDS

This can only work in one of two ways: a.) Users can block others from finding them based on specific search terms. This really makes no sense if you imagine someone is tweeting and blogging every day. They could block [X] person from finding them under one keyword, but [X] could still find them using another. b.) The only way it could work is if a site such as Twitter were to implement this auto block on users site wide. So you could take the followers of a person then block them from seeing content with specific keywords. And it appears to me that these measures have nothing to do with harassment.

  1. OPTION TO BLOCK ALL USERS WITH FEWER FOLLOWERS OR SUBSCRIBERS UNDER A THRESHOLD

This would not stop any harasser if they have followers or subscribers over that threshold

  1. STATES NEED TO UPDATE STALKING LAWS TO INCLUDE HARASSING OR THREATENING COMMUNICATION

As already stated by Mr Alison, the UK (and the US) already have adequate laws to deal with such crimes. So the question remains in what form shall we see these updates? But from what we have seen already, the indication is that it will look like this new definition of criticism.

  1. CRIMINALISE THE NON CONSENTUAL PUBLISHING OF ANY SEXUALLY INTIMATE IMAGES OR VIDEO AS AN INVASION OF SEXUAL PRIVACY

A quote from Twitter user @ducesettutamen  I think best sums this up! ” Ms. Sarkeesian’s attempt to use buzz words like “sexual privacy” only serves to conflate the issue. There is no such thing as “sexual privacy” only simple privacy which is a right all Americans enjoy.” And as he points out, in regards to US law there are already provisions in place to deal with all of the other points on Ms Sarkeesian’s proposal. Even to many of her own followers some of these points do not make sense, until that is, you replace the word HARASSMENT with CRITICISM. Most worrying of all is point 5, because if implemented site wide it would create a system wide open to abuse. It could be manipulated for political and social censorship through brigading and manipulations. When we look through the sphere of criticism, then all of the measures could potentially lead to an Orwellian wet dream. With the recent launch of the partnership of Twitter and WAM (Women, Action & the Media) to help control the harassment of women on the network, some supporters of #gamergate have expressed concern as to where this is all going. And once such systems are implemented, we cannot guarantee forever their use will not be extended beyond their initial purpose, or that they will not be abused by individuals, groups or organisations. And if that happens, many who are applauding these initiatives today could wake one day and ask themselves… “What have we done?”


Anthony Mark

A founder & director in the I.T industry. With a passion for games and their mechanics, from play through to development. I'm currently also very interested in general technological developments. Especially in relation to the business world & various practical application models. Currently Playing: Mount & Blade: Warband, Start Trek Online, Birth Of The Federation, Clash Of Clans... The list goes on!