Looking back over the 25 years since he drafted proposals that lead to the creation of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee used the anniversary to raise concerns about its future.
The Web We Want campaign is calling for every country to adopt a digital bill of rights over the next year to ensure that the web is open, free and secure for everyone.
The focus of interviews with Berners Lee has been on the extent to which actions of governments, corporations and military strategists pose a threat to the independence and openness of his creation.
But recent discussions about trolling and online abuse have highlighted questions to do with gender and race that should also inform any debate about a digital bill of rights.
Consideration should also be given to the way power structures operate within the Web as part of a campaign for “a world where everyone, everywhere is online and able to participate in a free flow of knowledge, ideas, collaboration and creativity over the open Web”.
It’s not that online abuse is new: Roxanna Shapour, who works as a senior publicist for BBC Global News, and adds that the views expressed are hers, says online abuse was commonplace in the pre-Web Usenet discussion groups she joined in the 1980s as a student in the United States.
“I’ve followed the debate around trolling, of women particularly, and it was the same when I was a young woman,” says Shapour. Nonetheless she describes Usenet as a “very democratic” space in which to start a group you had to make an announcement, create “articles of incorporation” and put it to a vote.
A precursor to social media, the text-driven system relied on dial-up connections and allowed users to read and post messages. Discussions in the Iranian, feminist and punk rock groups she was part of could get very heated, but Shapour makes a distinction between those debates and the “flame wars” that sometimes went on for weeks, even months.
“There were the incredibly conservative right wing pro-Iranian regime people who were very abusive; and offensive. Then there were the royalists who were equally abusive back. There used to be all-out, very intense flame wars between them which could become quite aggressive,” she says. “It seemed that the only reason some people were active in your group was to start flame wars.”
In those early days of the internet, a certain level of protection was afforded by anonymity of users, but nonetheless Shapour remembers the internet as a “very gendered male domain”.
This was true also of the Web’s early discussion forums, says writer and academic Sunny Singh who took part in discussions in some of those run by major national newspapers.
Singh used a number of logins to “test” the extent to which people’s responses depended on what they knew about her:
“One of the things I learnt was that having a name that was gender neutral was far better,” she says. “As long as you didn’t indicate in any way that you were female, you would get the respect; you would get the engagement.”
If you were identified as a woman, you could be hounded by users who seemed determined to push you off the forum: “It wasn’t everybody, but the core group of misogynists was often the loudest and most aggressive group,” Singh says.
Since those early years of the Web, debates about freedom of speech and online abuse have often been shaped by the belief that identity politics created the problem. “The first reaction that you see when someone talks about flamers or trolls is always from a white, most likely straight man, who’s a geek, who says the internet was supposed to be anonymous and it was fine, until you people decided to insert your identities,” says Singh.
The underlying supposition of this argument is that everything is fine so long as everyone appears to be be male and white, says Singh. “It’s about who we accept as an authority and who we accept as having valuable and valid opinions,” she adds. “In India, it’s a man. In the international context, it’s a white man. As long as you can be seen as either one of those you have the authority to talk about serious things – you can have a conversation about politics or finance, the military, but the moment you are seen as a woman, then because of your biology, you’re not.”
Hierarchies may have always existed online, but Shapour says people responded very differently before they had online service providers like Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr to turn to.
“It was totally decentralised, highly deregulated. We policed it ourselves,” says Shapour. “But you could always count on collective action and you could always count on each other to rally and stand together to silence flamers.”
Shapour contrasts this with the “strong chorus of people” who demanded action from Twitter after campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and historian Mary Beard were threatened on Twitter.
“I agree absolutely that there is a corporate responsibility aspect to this, but where are the people? Corporate responsibility doesn’t absolve us as individuals. We also have a responsibility to stand up, take a stance and make ourselves heard and say ‘enough’.”
If we are going to give thought to the kind of Web we want, it’s important to note Singh’s experiments showed not only that a login that gave a “nod” to her gender meant people engaged with her in a “completely different way,” but also that racial markers made things worse.
The fact that women experience different layers of discrimination is why articles like the one published by the Nation recently are potentially so damaging. Michelle Goldberg’s claims that online feminism has become so toxic it is hurting the movement and blames women of colour for being divisive while at the same time glossing over the frustrations that prompted hashtags such as SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. As I’ve written before, white women need be more conscious of their position and find ways navigating conversations about race without reverting to harmful stereotypes.
Despite being a “flame wars” veteran, Shapour says she has found that she is far more “tentative and hesitant” since the publication of Goldberg’s article in January.
“I don’t want to be accused of being some woman of colour thug,” she says. “Obviously as a woman of colour I’m on the receiving end, so it’s difficult for me to dismiss it and say of course we’re not bullies. But I’d like to think that I’m not a bully,” she says. “It also makes me think that finally, women of colour have managed to stake a claim, find their voice – and all of a sudden, the white middle class ageing left is taking issue with it? Does that mean you are a proponent for my rights so long as I’m cowering in the corner?”
So, what kind of Web do we want? One that’s free from discrimination on the basis of gender, certainly. But could we also set our sights on a Web where we “rally and stand together” to ensure that all women are empowered to speak? Let’s hope so.
Julie Tomlin is co-founder of Digital Women UK.