Here’s why censoring misogynist speech would be bad for women

September 12, 2013

Jillian York (Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

On Thursday, the Verge published an article arguing that major tech companies needed to more aggressively filter out online speech that was harassing and degrading to women. The article set off an epic Twitter rant from Jillian York, director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "I think free speech benefits me as a woman far more than it harms me," York tweeted.

I spoke to York by phone on Thursday evening. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Timothy B. Lee: Some women's advocates are worried that misogynistic speech can create a hostile environment for women online. Do you think that's a legitimate concern?

Jillian York: There was a case a couple months ago where a bunch of different groups got together and petitioned Facebook to respond more proactively to hate speech targeting women. With nuance, this makes a lot of sense. For example, Facebook doesn't take rape jokes as seriously as, say, antisemitic content. That's a totally valid point.

But I would prefer it if tech companies didn't take on speech at all. I don't think that's what they should be doing. These are platforms that we think of as the public sphere. Even though they're private companies, we're not thinking of them that way. They need to take more responsibility for upholding Article 19 [of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of speech].

Which companies do you have in mind here? You don't object to a blogs moderating their comment sections, do you?

I'm really thinking about the big global platforms. I moderate comments on my blog. I admit that openly. I think that's comparable to me moderating comments on my Facebook wall, which is something I can do on Facebook.

But in some cases, Facebook proactively takes down content. My understanding is that they do have some sorts of keyword filters for profanity and other terms, as well as software that identifies nudity. Beyond that, it's a proactive thing based on community policing. I believe that with one billion users that's not a scalable system.

Some people argue that sufficiently vicious hate speech can effectively censor women by bullying them out of participating in public discussions.

I get really tired of that argument because I'm a woman and I don't feel that way. But I think it's true of some women.

But censorship also negatively impacts women a lot of the time. For example, images of women breast feeding. Facebook would see that as inappropriate content. They treat it as obscenity. Yet you could imagine health and education benefits.

Some women have had their home addresses posted online. Is that kind of harassment or intimidation in a different category?

I'm not a lawyer, so my general position on this has been that companies should align themselves to their best possibility with the First Amendment. So if something would be handled under harassment laws, the same thing should apply there. Certainly, online platforms can enable that kind of harassment on a greater scale. So I'm open to the idea that there might be exceptions.

But I do think that when it comes to things that are not threats against a person, like wildly inappropriate hate-speech filled jokes. That is free speech.

You've argued that women benefit from free speech more than they're harmed by it. Can you give some specific examples?

Here's one real-life case. A few years ago Microsoft Bing launched in a bunch of different language versions, and one of them was tied to the Arabic language. It was censored for sex and related terms including "breast." You could not search with the word breast in your search term. So "breast cancer" and "chicken breast" were censored. No one could get information about chicken recipes or health information. They ended up changing that.

Another example: for me as a woman in tech, [without the Internet I would have] far fewer opportunities for career advancement because women are not taken as seriously. The ability for me to go on Twitter and be the loudmouth I've been since a child is incredible. That's how I got my career. It was because over the years I built up my own platform. It's an incredible way for women to [raise their profiles.]

I accept that that takes a certain kind of personality, but it's a good way to overcome barriers in a lot of fields.

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