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Safe digital spaces, a dialogue on countering cyberviolence

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

On November 4th, during the Internet Governance Forum 2020, UN Women, The World Wide Web Foundation , and IT for Change co-organized a round table discussion with tech companies and civil society organizations. It provided a space for dialogue for shared reflection between tech companies and civil society organizations on creating a multi-stakeholder strategy to counter online gender-based violence (OGBV), accounting for its diverse forms and manifestations across contexts.

The co-organizers, Eve Kraicer of the Web Foundation, Nandini Chami of IT for Change, and Helene Molinier of UN Women, opened the meeting recalling the importance of women’s access to safe online spaces. The question was raised: why did Twitter recently and famously quickly ban of threats of violence in response to a male political figure, when girls and women often experience online violence without repercussion? Many women around the world have asked the same question and it was good to have this raised in a global forum.

The panel was moderated by Chenai Chair, Research Manager on Gender and Digital Rights at the World Wide Web Foundation. Speakers covered feminist framings for online safety; examples of working together to address a particular aspect of online gender-base violence; strategies for civil society engagement; building evidence through research for stakeholders to take action; and ensuring the application of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action in online spaces. The event provided a forum for a helpful exchange of ideas, resources and strategies.

Bhavna Jha, a lawyer at IT for Change discussed how increased claims to online space can result in a push back against claims to women’s spaces, as shown by a Google Trends analysis. She pointed to gaps in criminal laws and their application, misogyny in digital private spaces, and the need to view it as a structural power problem. Such an approach informs policy initiatives that understands spacial fluidity between offline and online spaces. This was picked up by other speakers in the discussion, that laws and policies need to cover and be interpreted to cover online and not only physical spaces.

Cindy Southworth, Women’s Safety Policy Manager/Head of Women’s Safety at Facebook highlighted her previous work building, working to increase platforms’ safety for persons experiencing domestic violence. More recently, with Facebook, she worked on a project with a Palestine NGO to walk through best ways to use the platform safety features (

Marwa Azelmat, Policy Coordinator at the Association for Progressive Communications described Takebackthetech!, a campaign to reclaim online technologies, and dismantle OGBV. She emphasized the free speech rights of women which must be protected when highly emotive content is deployed against them. Feminist dissent is silenced and deplatformed but this has led to civil society organizing, to counter longstanding misogyny. They created a women-led civil society organization that leaves political affiliation aside.

She emphasized the need to talk about the levels and layers of online behaviours; freedom of expression, mobilisation and association. She underlined the need for content moderation to be context-specific. Warning that centralized and automated responses have bias towards communities in different contexts, she stressed the need to mobilize local expertise, hear from local women and experiences, to leverage these experiences, to see what can or not be done.

Mariana Valente, Director of Internet Lab (BR) examined examples of violence around ICTs by domestic workers in Sao Paulo. She recommended a participatory approach, such as the one her organization used to conduct a quantitative survey and analysis. This showed that only 25% of participants used the internet to find work, and many found it unsafe to do so. Domestic workers who experienced violence online then avoided being online, not because of lack of tech skills or access, but because it was unsafe.

Valente emphasized that what individuals can do with counterspeech strategy to harassment can be very helpful to improve safety. While there are limits to it, and laws and private companies’ policies are important, there is great value of counterspeech, especially since online spaces are really important for women, even more so in the pandemic context.

During the discussion, Ellen Walker of RightsTech Women asked if there were good examples of anti-cybermobbing laws and policies, or actions that had been taken by companies, that panelists would want to highlight. She noted how the discussion had brought forward the basic question of whether and how to focus first one’s efforts on governments’ and companies’ laws and policies, or actions at the individual level, a discussion in itself. She shared how RightsTech Women is bringing together education on technology and the rights attached to that technology, which can help provide a way forward to prevent violence.

Bhavna Jha noted that companies are not always receptive to working with civil society organizations, citing an example where it had actually taken three years for a tech company to work with a local CSO. Cindy Southworth of Facebook noted that Facebook is now working to use machine learning to try to spot incidents of cybermobbing when they happen- when a person is attacked for example by hundreds of other people, so that the targeted person does not have to complain about multiple incidents happening at the same time. The work is in development. A participant shared Canada’s Playbook for Gender Equality in the Digital Age (see resources, below), which identifies a legal framework and key actions to be taken to support gender equality in digital contexts.

In sum, laws and policies to protect safety need to be applied to online spaces and improved where necessary; and, individuals should be educated on what to do or not do online, as well of the range of possible actions, when faced with different situations that occur in their specific contexts.

During the meeting, the co-organizers shared and added to a collaborative document allowing for easy access to and sharing of meeting information and resources (shared here).

IT for Change
Research on gender-based cyber violence
Research on online sexist hate speech here
UN Women
Generation Equality Forum
United Nations Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation
● The Web Foundation’s work around tackling online gender based violence includes: Research, Perspectives of grassroots women’s and digital rights organizations (see recent Women’s Rights Online (WRO) Report) and the WRO network, and Co-creation of solutions (see blog post from WF’s most recent consultation)

Resources shared during the meeting:

Canada’s Playbook for Gender Equality in the Digital Age: Developed by the Digital Inclusion Lab at Global Affairs Canada, the purpose of the Playbook for Gender Equality in the Digital Age is to put forward a set of best practices to support gender equality in digital contexts.

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