Sex and freedom of expression online

8 Dec 2016 10:00h - 11:30h

Event report

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Ms Bishakha Datta, Co-founder and Executive Director of Point of View, kicked off the session by talking about how individuals use the Internet for sexual expression and not just for pornography but for dating, relationships, sexual advice, and other forms of sexual expression. However, she pointed out that sexual expression is being treated as the unwanted, hidden child of freedom of expression, stating that it should be treated as equal to other forms of freedom of expression.

Datta gave the floor to the first speaker, Ms Jak Sm Kee, Director of the Women’s Rights Program, APC, and member of the IGF MAG. Kee started by sharing the work being done on sexuality at the IGF since 2006, mentioning the blocks to abortion information and LGBT sites under acts of anti-pornography laws in certain countries. Underlining the highly political aspect of sexuality, she delved deeper into the subject of how sexuality and sexual norms have been historically used to moderate the individual’s way of life. Kee linked the importance of sexual expression spaces online and offline to the right to associate and the right to family. She sees it as a space to challenge discrimination and express individuality. Moving on to APC’s research (Erotics) on sexuality and the Internet in different communities which started in 2008 and includes the USA, Nepal, India, Indonesia, and other countries, working with women, trans, youth, LGBT communities. The findings from 2013 show that 98% of sexual rights activists stated that the Internet was critical for their work. The threats and challenges they faced included dissemination of their private information without their consent and the blocking of access to their resources and websites. Therefore, Internet gatekeepers such as governments, ISPs, and social media sites were critical of their work and the blockings were based on the grounds of promoting child safety and protecting public decency. Topics to be censored included paedophilia and obscenity. The research was aimed as a guide for policy-making and advocacy.

Ms Smita Vanniyar from Point of View took the floor to speak about anonymity with a focus on the LGBT community, underlining the critical importance of it especially for communities discriminated against. She stressed how gay individuals, particularly in countries which have laws that criminalise homosexuality, rely heavily on online spaces for meeting others, giving an example of gay men being arrested under charges of ‘conspiracy to commit sodomy’ after their online profiles were linked to their personal information. Another example was given from Malaysia where police have been known to infiltrate trans and gay forums in the hopes of collecting personal information on the members to be used to arrest and prosecute them. Vanniyar also mentioned how the queer movement in Lebanon and Egypt owes its existence in large part to the protection of online anonymity and spaces, giving the example of the recent murder of a Pakistani sexual activist, whose identity was revealed and led to her being killed by her brother. She stressed the relevance of anonymity to the freedom of expression saying ‘if you can’t speak freely, you won’t speak at all.’

Shiva (did not want to state her last name) from Loom, Nepal, took the floor to talk about the concept of honour in Nepal especially the honour of family and men which is directly tied to the behaviour of women. Underlining how the concept of honour is tied to women’s bodily autonomy, she acknowledged the improvement in some laws such as the ones recognising women’s right to reproductive health, and the legalisation of abortion. She continued by stating that Nepal is the first Asian country to give citizenship to sexual minorities. Emphasising the vitality of online resources for sexual health where offline spaces are reluctant to educate adolescents on the subject, there is the fact that the government is blocking sites related to sex and pornography. Ongoing research done by Loom also found that every women’s right activist has experienced online violence and threats at least once.

Ms Sanchia Brown, Women and Media Collective, Sri Lanka, talked about the research done to identify online harassment and hate speech, which especially targets women in the post-war Sri Lanka. Using photographs taken at vigils, a smearing campaign got underway and was among the happenings the report pinpointed. The photos were used to target women, reveal private information, defame and discourage them from taking an active part in the political public discourse while making negative comments on what they were wearing and how unacceptable sleeveless or transparent attire was. Brown also noted that the perpetrators of the smearing campaign were not prosecuted, which showed that the attacks were acceptable politically and were used to try and silence women.

Ms Bishakha Datta later talked about rape videos in India, where gangs of men and boys sexually attack and rape girls and women they meet in offline physical spaces, record the crime on video, distribute the videos through social media platforms, especially WhatsApp, and sometimes even sell them. The Supreme Court of India recently asked Facebook, Yahoo! and other social media platforms what are they planning to do about the distribution act of these crimes. Datta stressed that these videos do not qualify as sexual expression since it is a crime to record, and distributing the crime is the third criminal layer of these acts. She also highlighted another problematic area: Indian law enforcement prosecutes rape video cases under an information technology act which misclassifies a women’s rights violation crime as a test of public morals. She stated that they had also observed similar patterns in South Asia where legal discourse is leading to a belief that obscenity is the prime harm in non-consensual sexual expression rather than a violation of consent and the right to privacy.

The last speaker, Ms Olga Cavalli, Director of the South School of Internet Governance, Argentina, mentioned the big role the Internet has in women’s protests and gatherings and in the organisation of these protests in Argentina where a woman is killed every 30 hours. Cavalli talked about the massive protests that are organised throughout the country that aim to underline the high rate of violence against women in the region where sometimes painting public spaces are involved. She highlighted the negative press coverage the protests get focusing on the painting of public areas although there are other protests which do the same thing but are socially or religiously oriented and do not receive the same type of negative press coverage. She noted the positive aspects of sexual laws in Argentina where same-sex marriages, a trans person’s right to work for the government, a person’s right to legally change their name and gender are protected by law.

The panel ended with questions and comments from the audience flagging issues including the media’s coverage of sexual crimes, online literacy, images of sexting being non-consensually distributed, cultures that prevent convictions around rape, advocacy, and the pros and cons of anonymity and consent related to platforms.

by Su Sonia Herring, Internet Society Turkey