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A web for everyone: strengthening accountability for online gender-based violence

Web Foundation · September 21, 2022

This post was written by Katherine Townsend, Director of Policy (Interim). Follow Katherine on Twitter @DiploKat.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee, co-founder of the Web Foundation, invented the World Wide Web, he intended to open the technology of the internet for the appreciation of everyone around the world. He reinforced this vision at the opening of the 2012 Olympics, tweeting of the web: “This Is For Everyone”.

The Web Foundation’s mission is to realize this original vision, and work for a safe, trusted, and empowering web. Of the greatest threats to this web we want is the pervasive presence and impact of gender-driven harassment and violence online. 

Women, and other minoritized genders, are harassed everyday due to their gender. Over 50% of the global population experiences or witnesses an online space that allows harassment and violence without consequences. The only response that will keep women safe at the moment is too frequently for them to remove their profiles and presence online. This may not be the first step—they file complaints with platforms, with police—but without a response many choose to take their presence, their voice, their leadership offline. Increasingly, the web becomes a place that is not for everyone, but one that is absent of women, especially women from marginalized communities including Indigenous communities, darker skinned women, LGBTQ+ communities, and minoritized ethnic groups within different countries, and a place that is populated with those who feel encouraged to abuse and attack. This leads to a dangerous World Wide Web, filled with fragmented spaces as more seek to find their own sources of comfort and support in virtual spaces—for good or for ill.

Some of the tech companies have recognized the gravity of this problem and have made public commitments to counter online gender-based violence. For the past year, Meta, Google, Twitter, and TikTok have worked with the Web Foundation and with global civil society, particularly with gender justice and digital rights organizations, to improve their reporting, increase autonomy for users, and share transparent data about their progress. These companies announced their commitments over a year ago at the United Nations Generation Equality Forum, and this week during the UN General Assembly, we are sharing our accountability report detailing on the progress made by these companies, what they’ve been able to accomplish, what barriers remain, and what value Web Foundation has in supporting this work.

We found that most of the companies have made some progress, primarily on reporting and on user interface. The collaboration between Twitter and Google on the harassment manager tool helps support any user in regaining control of their own platform and reporting. TikTok and Meta have also made some inroads into easing reporting and allowing users to limit or block abusive interactions. These changes are promising, and we want to see more. We continue to be most encouraged by Twitter’s open api. While not a development of the past year, this important tool allows entrepreneurs outside of the company to build their own solutions to protect against violence online and allows access for independent researchers, both key to tackling this problem.

Where we’re still falling short is transparency about the magnitude of violence and harassment online, and what impact any of the implemented changes are having on the number of instances and the degree of harm. To address this, we require a global and multi-stakeholder effort to agree on the standard of information and level of detail companies must share and develop mechanisms to make this information publicly available. In speaking and working with global civil society, we’ve also heard that the fundamental approach to improving the platform—one focused on what happens after the harassment occurs—relies on individuals to learn a new system of reporting their harassment, rather than taking a prevention-centered approach. Reporting systems are designed by the platforms with zero to minimal input of the communities most affected by online gender-based violence and a lack of consideration of local context outside of the Global North. Designed in this way, the act of reporting harassment can serve to retraumatize, and without clear response and action, can cause more harm than good. 

The Web Foundation is committed to working across tech platforms, global civil society, and other key partners to build a better web for all—the multi-dimensional nature of OGBV requires a global multi-stakeholder solution. By convening these networks and designing better policies and co-creating products, the web can be a single space that is safe, trusted, and empowering. A web that is for everyone. 

Explore the report

The Web Foundation is committed to working in partnership with organizations across the globe and wants to acknowledge the commitment and effort contributed by a large range of stakeholders. In particular, we would like to acknowledge the engagement of global civil society organizations, tech companies, facilitators, and report contributors. 

The collaboration of organizations and individuals who contributed to the writing of this report included Katherine Townsend, World Wide Web Foundation; Gabriela de Oliveira & Hilary Watson, Glitch; Manon Desert & Luisa Braig, Social Finance; Paulina Ibarra, Fundacion Multitudes; Marianne Diaz, Access Now; Juliet Nanfuka, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa; and Marwa Azelmat, RNW Media.

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Tim Berners-Lee, our co-founder, gave the web to the world for free, but fighting for it comes at a cost. Please support our work to build a safe, empowering web for everyone.

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