Todd Blaisdell/CC BY 2.0

Harassment Hurts Us All. So Does Censorship

Harassment is a huge problem. A perennial, insidious problem made worse by the fact that, thanks to the proliferation of one-too-many platforms, everyone has a bully pulpit if they want it. It can be tempting to call for a means of banning abuse on such platforms, but censorship won’t solve the underlying issues

Like most women who spend time on the Internet, I have experienced harassment. I’ve been issued rape threats, been told to kill myself, and
been called a terrorist supporter for my views on Palestine. I’ve been slandered on blogs, and yes, I’ve been called a misogynist for my free speech absolutism too. I have cried about it, I have screamed about it, and whenever possible, I have responded to it.

Recently, The Verge published an article that centered around Weev and his horrible harassment of women, including Kathy Sierra. Weev was prosecuted under the CFAA in an extremely flawed case defended by my colleagues. The article addresses the subject of online harassment well, but I felt that it misrepresented Weev’s legal case, and said so on Twitter.

I also took serious issue with a quote from Valerie Aurora of the Ada Initiative, who, referring to EFF (where I work), said: “This is another case where they’re saying, ‘The cases we care about are the ones white men are interested in. We’re less interested in protecting women on the web.’”

I took particular exception to the implication contained in Aurora’s statement that free speech only benefits white men, and said as much on Twitter, adding that, as a woman, I feel that free speech has benefited me more than it has harmed me.

This led Timothy Lee of The Switch to ring me up. I agreed to an interview and it was later published as: “Here’s why censoring misogynist speech would be bad for women.” With a title like that, it has (perhaps rightly) garnered quite a bit of backlash, so I thought it might be worth a little explanation…as well as some nuance into why I said what I said.

The crux of the interview, and the issue at hand, is whether or not censorship is a good solution to the problem of online harassment and bullying. It has become a fairly commonplace response to certain “undesirable” speech—be it misogynistic, racist, homophobic, etc—to call for bans on it, either from government or from online platforms themselves. I sympathize with the sentiment behind those calls—who amongst us hasn’t wished a certain racist or sexist commentator would just disappear?—but in the end, I just can’t abide.

You see, I don’t see censorship as a solution to anything. I see it as a band-aid slapped carelessly over a gaping, septic wound. That is not to deny the effects of harassment, or even “hate speech” (click the link to understand why I use quotes around that term), but to say that the problem is institutional, systemic, and in need of a better solution. It makes me very frustrated when arguments are made to ban a certain type of speech, but seem to go no further, as if ridding our spaces of that speech is the be-all end-all to solving the problem. Hint: it’s not.

Most of all, I don’t believe that censorship offers lasting benefits. If this were a perfect world, in which we could draw a very solid red line between speech that should be banned and speech that should not, and we were all able to have a voice in making those determinations, and that blocking was done with the utmost oversight, transparency, and accountability, you might be able to convince me.


The truth, however, is that efforts to censor hate speech, or obscenity, or pornography, are far too often overreaching, creating a chilling effect on other, more innocuous speech. Microsoft Bing, which I mentioned in my article, is not the first nor the last platform to block “breast” and with it, “breast cancer” and “chicken breast.” In my years of research, I’ve spoken to doctors whose workplace network blocked important health terms, to women in Saudi Arabia whose ISPs did the same, to queer youth whose schools or public libraries used pornography filters that took down non-obscene LGBTQ content with it, and so on. And as such, I’m convinced that the imperfect technologies we put so much stock in to make our world a little better and brighter actually make it darker.

I’ve also talked to activists and others around the world whose content has been taken down from Facebook and YouTube because it doesn’t meet the yes, patriarchal terms of service set forth by the mostly-male teams that design them. Breastfeeding=bad, violence against women=good, they tell us. They take down important pages (like ‘We Are All Khaled Said’) because their moderator, likely an at-risk activist in an unsafe space, dares use a pseudonym.And yet you want to trust them to regulate speech even more? No, thanks.

Nuance Needed

I am not deaf to the argument that in some contexts, removing certain types of speech creates a safer and more inclusive space. To be clear, I want those spaces to exist. That’s the same reason I moderate comments on my blog and block trolls on Twitter. But I view that as very different from a major online platform with more than one billion users making those decisions for me.

But I also realize that something I said in that interview was, while representative of my personal experience, pretty callous.

I have dedicated a substantial amount of my time to finding and cultivating platforms for women’s voices, based on my belief that a solution to the widespread harassment and bullying of women online is to keep pushing women’s voices into the mainstream, louder and stronger. I recognize that this solution doesn’t work for everyone, and therefore acknowledge that it’s a mere piece of the puzzle, rather than a solution on its own. So when I say, “I get really tired of [the argument that women are bullied out of public discussions] because I’m a woman and I don’t feel that way,” the point I’m trying to make is that, while I feel bullied, I’m not going anywhere. No way, no how.

I want to be clear: I am not denying that women are frequently “bullied off the Internet,” and I can see why it appears from the interview that I feel that way. Rather, I believe that that refrain ignores the experiences of those of us who would prefer to respond to hate speech with more speech, prefer to shout louder over the din. I’ve been accused many times of upholding the patriarchy for my ideal that sunlight and resolve are even a solution, and I’m tired of it.

And so I stand by my position, reflected in the words of the great Justice Louis Brandeis, that the best remedy to “bad” speech is more speech, not enforced silence. I believe this, but I also believe we need to fight to ensure that women—as well as other marginalized groups and individuals—have the opportunity to engage in counter speech.

If we are to fight for free expression, we must also fight for greater opportunity, and we must have each other’s backs. We must call out misogyny where we see it, and we must have zero tolerance for it in the workplace. We must commit to inclusivity, and we must raise up those around us who might not have the same privilege that we do.

It is possible to be dedicated to freedom of speech and to the advancement of women. I’ve worked at the EFF for a little over two years and have found it to be the most inclusive space in which I’ve had the pleasure of working. Not to mention, eight out of eleven
here with the word “director” in their title are women, and on the whole, we’re very balanced in terms of gender. In the often privileged field that is digital rights, this is notable.

Interviews are less than ideal in getting one’s point across; quotes are
shortened, context is left out, and terrible titles are added for link
bait. But while I intend to make no excuses for what I’ve said, I feel
compelled to elaborate on my beliefs and how I came to them. I expect disagreement, but I’d prefer it be with my ideas, rather than a context-less shell of them.

I believe that free expression is compatible with a better society, and I
will continue to fight for both.

Image by Todd Blaisdell, CC BY 2.0

dog lover, occasional troublemaker, writer of musicals about privacy.

dog lover, occasional troublemaker, writer of musicals about privacy.