Below is the text of my talk from ORGcon. Some of you may know that worlds did end up colliding, and I’ll write about that later, but for now I wanted to let this stand on its own. It comes with a trigger warning for discussion of violence against women.
I’ve been in digital rights – one way or another – since the late 90s. I came to the field through 3 things
- Free software, which I continue to use and passionately support for ideological as well as practical reasons
- Piracy – which I have more or less stopped committing as I have found other ways to engage with culture and artists
- And fanfiction – which I do still occasionally commit.
What these have in common is that they’re, broadly speaking, intellectual property issues. And intellectual property issues for me are a complete no-brainer – I know exactly where I stand on them, which is firmly on the side of users. (Hold the rotten tomatoes.) We, the users, have the right to run a piece of software; we have the right to access the source code and change it as we wish, etc. We have the right to format-shift our music collection rather than buy everything again the next time technology changes, and we have the right to access, remix and transform our culture. Simples. (I said hold the rotten tomatoes.)
It is probably worth noting at this point that the sum total of my own cultural and creative output is a meandering political blog and some rather dubious fanfiction. Hardly anything I’m going to make a living from by insisting no one copy or distribute it without paying me.
If, on the other hand, you’re a musician sitting in this audience with that rotten tomato, or an author, and you’ve been listening to labels and publishers tell you how the Internet is killing music/publishing for the last 15 years, it’s not really simples, is it? Because even if you firmly believe that we should not be disconnecting people from the internet for file sharing; even if you firmly believe that copyright should not be abused to justify censorship and surveillance; even if you firmly believe that artists and rightsholders should not be suing fans into oblivion – even then you still want to make a living out of your art and hard work. And suddenly, unlike me with the corporate day job, your worlds start colliding. You have skin in the game on both sides of this debate, and things start getting a bit hairy.
Which is not only perfectly fine – it is to be encouraged. So what I want to talk to you about today are some more examples of issues where worlds collide – for me personally and for digital rights activists in general. I want to talk to you about the grey areas where things stop being a no-brainer and start getting really difficult. And I want to talk to you about how, the harder you personally are finding a particular issue, the more likely it is that you will have something incredibly valuable to contribute.
We’ve already established that I have hardly any skin in the game when it comes to intellectual property. Where as a feminist and digital rights activist I do have skin in the game though, is when it comes to the fine line between free speech and hounding women off the internet through bullying and threatening behaviour. Let me tell you a bit about the dangers of being female on the Internet…
Chat users with female-sounding usernames get 25 times more malicious messages than those with gender-neutral or male-sounding names. That’s on average 163 times a day that some random stranger will ask you if you’re feeling horny, tell you to get your tits out, or suggest that their dick and your pussy will make a great pair.
Online gaming is a particularly nasty corner of the internet if you happen to be of the wrong gender. There’s a couple of websites which curate the gems of creativity male gamers hurl at their female counterparts. Here are some screengrabs from a blog called Fat, Ugly or Slutty. From telling women gamers they should “get back in the kitchen” to “am gonna slit your throat you fucking slut”, it’s all in there.
A special sort of hell is also reserved for women who dare to express an opinion online. Female bloggers, prominent and otherwise, are regularly told, often graphically, that we deserve to be raped or killed (and raped, before and after). This kind of thing is so common that a female blogger’s first “fat and ugly” comment is practically a badge of honour – a sign that we’ve truly made it. Oh, and here is my very first rape threat.
Incidentally, while the anonymity of the internet probably exacerbates the issue, this is not a phenomenon confined to online space. In meatspace, we call it street harassment, and it’s just as problematic. But in meatspace no one calls for laws to make TfL hand over all Oyster Card data so the police can track down the guy who groped me on the tube. In meatspace, politicians don’t jump on violence against women as a reason to legislate for more surveillance and censorship – at best they ignore the issue, and at worst they make it worse. In meatspace, you generally have to bring out the big guns like terrorism to package up your horrible, illiberal, rights-infringing legislation.
And so when feminists start calling for police powers to track down trolls and play into the hands of the censorship and surveillance lobby, I do a double-take and have to ask myself which side of this debate I’m on. And it’s a tough question – but ultimately I’m not interested here in slogans and soundbites and kneejerk reactions. I’m interested in finding solutions that work, so I’m not going to bang on about the principles of free speech or – valid though it is – the concept of rape culture. I’m much more likely instead to tell you that there is existing legislation and police powers that can be used for truly threatening behaviour.
But I’m also much more likely to challenge the silent male majority in online spaces to make it clear that threatening and harassing women to hound them off the internet is not okay. That it is, in fact, also a free speech issue when women’s voices are silenced in this way – because it doesn’t matter if it’s the state doing the censoring, or Facebook, or a bunch of trolls who make you feel unsafe about speaking out – the effect is the same. So if you truly care about free speech you’d better be prepared to help find a way to let those voices be heard.
Let me give you another example: the Great Porn Firewall of Britain. We’ve had report after report describe the harmful effects pornography is having on children and young people. Stories vary in quality and sensationalism. Hordes of 10-year-olds addicted to porn? Check. Porn used to groom children by sex abuse gangs? Check. Porn to blame for the shocking rate of intimate partner violence among teenagers? Check. And you know what? Some of these things are probably even true. And as someone who was abused as a teenager – though porn had nothing to do with it – if there’s anything we can do to spare even one kid that experience then it’s worth doing.
But when Claire Perry and Ed Vaizey propose the Great Porn Firewall of Britain, as a digital rights and queer activist I look at it and go “WHOA! Let’s slow down a little here!” Because not only is there incredible potential for abuse in the technology, not only do the proposals contain absolutely no democratic oversight, but it’s simply not going to work. Yes, it looks good in the headlines, but children will continue to get exposed to porn while we’re all congratulating ourselves on having fixed the problem and look the other way. And not only that, but more likely than not, kids are going to lose access to vital resources on sex education and sexual health. LGBTQ kids in particular are likely to lose access to safe spaces online, spaces where they can be themselves, where they’re not being told their entire existence is wrong, spaces which can and do save their lives.
And so, faced with the Great Porn Firewall of Britain, as a digital rights and queer and domestic violence activist, and as an abuse survivor, I’m going to start asking difficult questions. I’m going to start asking why the education secretary, every time sex and relationship education is mentioned, sniggers like a 12-year-old behind the bike sheds. Why the department for education has half-arsed and buried campaign after campaign against abuse in teenage relationships. Why we are failing to teach kids about consent and respect and communication in relationships. And I’m going to ask for the evidence that blocking porn a. stops kids from watching it and b. has any actual positive impact on what really matter like abuse and violence in relationships.
These are the issues where my worlds collide. They’re the issues where digital rights for me become really, really difficult. I hope there are areas in your lives where you feel the same. Areas where being a digital rights campaigner doesn’t quite sit comfortably with something else you’re doing. Issues that make you want to ask the really hard questions. To go beyond the soundbites. To find solutions that work. Because those are the issues where you can contribute the most. Where you can challenge both sides to get off their high horses and actually talk to each other. Where you can really make a difference.
And I also hope that this has convinced you that we need a more diverse digital rights community. Because we all have blind spots. We all have issues that to us are no-brainers. And the more diverse our community is, the more likely that someone will say, “Hang on! What about this?!”
So there are two things I want you to do when you leave here today. One: I want you to start asking the really hard questions. And two: I want you to think about how we can reach out beyond our bubble of geeks in black t-shirts and make this a welcoming community for everyone.