Did the UN Just Suggest Requiring Government Licenses for Online Content?

On September 24, the United Nations Broadband Commission for Digital Development published a study titled “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls: A World-Wide Wake-up Call,” which researched and proposed ways to prevent online violence against women and girls. The report states that 73 percent of women in the 86 countries surveyed have been victims of online violence. While the report doesn’t produce data specific to the U.S., there’s no doubt that such behavior does occur here. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of the largely anonymous nature of the Internet to indulge in some pretty awful behaviors. Sometimes, they say things they’d be afraid to say in person. Sometimes they’re just trolls who’ll say anything because they find humor in the reaction. What We’re Up Against One of the most noteworthy recent examples of online harassment in the U.S., particularly against women, was the Gamergate controversy. In case you missed it: a number of women made legitimate complaints about the way female characters are depicted in video games, and the degree of online overreaction was both absurd and awful. Some of the women even received death threats in response. What should we do about it? According to the report, only 26 percent of law enforcement agencies take appropriate action against these kinds of threats. In an effort to reduce online harassment and violence against women, the report proposes a three-step plan. 1.Sensitization: Changing public attitudes about harassment 2.Safeguards: Maintaining safety via infrastructure and customer-care practices and offering technical solutions to report abuse 3.Sanctions: Preventing and prosecuting violence and harassment Number one is a no-brainer. Let’s do it. Numbers two and three sound pretty reasonable as well, but the report’s conclusion does include one recommendation, touching on each of these two points, that might trouble some people: “Political and governmental bodies need to use their licensing prerogative to ensure that only those Telecoms and search engines are allowed to connect with the public that supervise content and its dissemination.” What’s the problem? Ending violence against women is a worthy goal. But is it a good idea, in the name of a worthy goal, to require government licensing for social media platforms, websites, search engines, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs)? What role should governments and online platforms play in shaping online behavior and working against morally objectionable content/speech? Would licensing be legal? The government requires licensing for some forms of communication: TV and radio stations require licensing from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for example. For the most part, the government doesn’t regulate content: foul language and wardrobe malfunctions on over-the-air broadcasts are notable exceptions, but they don’t apply to cable TV or the Internet. Denying licensing based on objectionable content would probably be illegal. In addition to questions about requiring government licenses for online entities, the UN report brings up questions of free speech. Traditionally, the U.S. has a much broader view of free speech than the rest of the world: objectionable speech and even speech advocating violence is protected under the First Amendment unless it’s designed to provoke “imminent lawless action.” So what can we do? Hiding behind the First Amendment can only get the trolls so far. Federal anti-stalking law already prohibits using the Internet “with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person at the called number or who receives the communications.” It’s worth noting that the federal government has jurisdiction over such a crime only when a communication crosses state lines — but given the nature of Internet infrastructure, even if the stalker and victim live next door to one another, servers may route the data containing the threat across state lines, thereby making it a federal case. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), another 38 states have statutes prohibiting cyberstalking, which the NCSL defines as the use of electronic communications as part of a “pattern of threatening or malicious behaviors.” The NCSL further reports 41 states have statutes against cyberharassment; the difference is that cyberstalking involves a credible threat, while cyberharassment doesn’t. Every state has a statute prohibiting at least one of these acts. A look around the country shows 22 states have laws against cyberbullying, and similar laws have been proposed in three more states and at the federal level. However, some of these laws are specifically aimed to protect children, and several apply only to on-campus behavior. Are these laws enough? I’m all for debating more severe penalties for online violence and harassment against women — or anyone, for that matter. Let’s confront the attitudes that allow harassment to take place, and let’s encourage social media sites and ISPs to make it easier to report harassment that’s illegal or ban trolls who violate their terms of service. We want the Internet to be a better, safer place for everyone. But we don’t want the government deciding what kind of content is actually allowed online. If the Internet is going to remain free, then the right of some people to be awful human beings is the price we might have to pay. 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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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