The internet is seen as an enabler of human rights protection and exercise that facilitates the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to education. It is also seen as important for social, economic and human development in Africa as stated in the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms. Connecting women is a way of ensuring these gains, which are particularly important for marginalised women. However, offline gender-based inequalities, such as gender violence, often come to the fore in the online world limiting these rights. Online gender-based violence has prompted a need for different stakeholders to take up the issue and play a role in ensuring online safety. Facebook, one of the most popular social media platforms, launched a series of women’s roundtable discussions to obtain a wider perspective on how best to develop and implement tools and mechanisms that ensure online safety. The first one was held in Nairobi, Kenya in early February. It consisted of representatives from NGO’s, academia, mobile network operators, women’s rights groups, and safety organisations from Kenya and across Sub-Saharan Africa. The main aim of this event was to begin a conversation on how the community in attendance could work together to ensure women’s safety online.
What is Technology assisted violence against women (VAW)?
Technology-related violence against women (VAW) is defined as “acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated in part or fully by the use of ICTs such as telephones, internet, social media and email” (Moolman, 2013:38). Tech-related VAW limits the full benefit of internet rights and freedom including the benefits of internet access and use. Technology-related violence occurs in the context of systemic and structural inequality, which fuels and reproduces discrimination and misogyny. Discussions around VAW within the realm of internet rights and governance have become a priority to ensure all can benefit from technology use.
Social media and networking platforms rising to the challenge? Case of Facebook.
Facebook is the most popular site as indicated above with a large community of users on its other platforms as well. However, tech-related violence often occurs on social media platforms. Facebook and other platform providers have been criticised for a lack of engagement with women who are not from the Global South with regards to addressing tech-related violence. The women’s roundtable initiative is a way to ensure exchange with women from global south regions that would lead to context based responses.
Facebook safety initiatives
The presentation by the Facebook safety team and head of policy for Africa showed the tools already in place (as well as future ones) that help users to be safe online. The Community Standards policy is a section that informs one how best to protect their account and be safe. The information provided suggests tips to help keep one safe; encourages respectful behaviour; shows how to keep your account and personal information secure; explains the protection of intellectual property and how to report abuse. Facebook has also taken a stand against the sharing of Non Consensual Intimate Images (NCII). This addresses the issue of revenge porn and threats of non-consensual sharing of intimate images with the public. In trying to address the effects of such abuse, a support system has been established in partnership with the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.
But the question at the end of the day is why is there a lack of awareness and how can this challenge be addressed to ensure safety online?
There is a clear need for increasing digital safety awareness of users online as well as adapting current mechanisms for the diversity of African users. The policies have been designed and implemented with limited consultation of users in the Global South. While report mechanisms indicate a step forward, languages in which one may report in may be limiting if your language of choice is not available. Addressing reports of abuse may also be limited by a lack of context by the team that deals with these issues.
Awareness by women and men of the Facebook’s Non Consensual Intimate Images (NCII) provision needs to be raised. The Community Standards, simplified as they are, might miss first-time users who come online without an understanding of what can and cannot be shared. Policy initiatives need to address the violation of non-platform users who is abused online with or without their knowledge. Users need to be prompted to constantly check their security setting as new changes on the platform mean settings revert to default.
These safety initiatives do create an opportunity for African organisations to partner with Facebook in assisting those who experience VAW on the platform – similar to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. Lack of cross-platform initiatives also limit the extent to which online safety awareness can spread. Given that Facebook is the largest social media platform, users from other platforms also need to be aware of the safety standards they have online. Google recently launched a campaign targeting 30 000 school children in Kenya to promote responsible and positive use of digital technology among youth. Perhaps this initiative could or does include social media safety.
Public policy issues: Beyond platform providers
Public policy and legal remedies:
While platform providers can set up ways to deal with tech-related violence, there needs to be legislation that deals with tech-related VAW. A policy dealing with gender-based violence needs to incorporate tools in dealing with tech-related violence. South Africa, Nova Scotia (Canada), California (USA) and New Zealand are some of the few countries that have legislative developments aimed at dealing with such forms of violence. South Africa Ministry of communication and the Film and Publications Board is planning a bill that could outlaw revenge porn with jail time or a hefty fine for offenders.
Demand side issues:
Policy issues need to tackle the lack of or limited user awareness of available legal options.Victims of VAW need to use the laws, (if in place) to seek justice whether it be civil litigation or the criminal justice system.
Authorities of public security:
The relevant officers of the law charged with defending and protecting public security need to be trained in dealing with incidences of tech-assisted violence and its victims. Just as authorities had to receive training for sensitisation on violence and abuse of women and children in the physical world, sensitisation to the reality of tech-assisted violence is requisite. This would, in turn, build evidence of tech-related violence to better inform online safety policies.