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Let's End the False War Between Free Speech and Hate Speech

Leaders of the tech industry need to make it clear that they support a medium that loves speech and supports dissent, but does not tolerate hate.

As I write this, the lizard part of my brain is trying to predict exactly how much nasty blowback I am going to get online for what I am about to say.

Will I be called a controlling bitch on Twitter? Will someone write me an email saying I deserve to be hit for running my idiotic mouth? Will my online life be mangled and mocked by someone who thinks I should shut the fuck up? Can I ever hope to silence this vile language that is hard to avoid via still inadequate tools offered by social networks?

Which is the main sad and salient point, I guess, that can be made by anyone — especially a woman — who speaks out against online harassment and demands more action from Internet companies that benefit from all of us sharing our digital identities.

The first knee-jerk reaction of those who think completely free speech is the paramount rule of the Internet is simple: Stop whining, you stupid girl, and take it, because everyone should be able to say exactly what they want, however they want and in whatever way they want to say it.

It’s a canard of an argument, designed to turn a complex issue into a reductive black-and-white debate where no one can come to any agreement.

Still, it’s always set up this way when anyone attempts to make the more obvious point that free speech is not as free as all that in the real world, where there are numerous social repercussions for behaving in a rude, obscene and appalling manner.

Simple example: If you loudly tell a woman she deserves to be raped for speaking her mind on any subject in the public square, at a party or at work, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get ejected from there and, at the very least, you’ll be subject to much-deserved derision and censure.

Not so on the Internet, where such talk is all too common and much too tolerated. Which is why Intel, Vox Media, Re/code and the Born This Way Foundation are coming together to co-create Hack Harassment (#hackharassment), a new, collaborative initiative to fight online harassment and provide safer, more inclusive online experiences.

To begin, we are not here to put the kibosh on fair and civil discussion on the Internet, even when it gets heated. We’re not here to tell you that you can’t have private discussions, however ugly, among you and your trollish friends. And we are also not telling you that you cannot have your own opinion.

What we are doing is putting a bright hot spotlight on the impact of hate speech. And what an impact it has, both on individuals and on society:

  • Eighty-four percent of technology professionals believe there is real-life risk and emotional impact for the person being harassed online — most commonly a damaging impact on the victim’s reputation (75 percent) and the potential to influence self-harm (66 percent).
  • More than six in 10 technology professionals think that the tech industry is not doing enough to prevent online harassment.
  • More than eight in 10 technology professionals agree that the tech industry needs to do more to prevent online harassment.
  • More than 80 percent of tech professionals agree that taking actions to prevent online harassment could be effective.

In terms of possible deterrents and solutions, 75 percent of technology professionals believe a universal code of online conduct would help curb harassment, 51 percent believe that blocking IP addresses of known harassers would be very effective and 47 percent believe building more tools into sites to allow users to block or report content would be very effective.

To be clear, we don’t have all the answers, and it’s not even clear there are lasting solutions to the darkness and rage that consumes some people and prompts them to spew this cruel bile. That’s why whatever we do, it will never be enough.

So we will start small, hosting a series of hackathons through Hack Harassment later this year. These hackathons will be online and in-person sessions that are participatory in design, outcome-driven and community-led. The goal is not just one of awareness but to also increase accountability, advance anti-harassment technology solutions and effect positive change.

As I noted in the press release, the Internet may be a digital environment, but it is made up of very real people and, unfortunately, sometimes very real threats. That’s why it will take a solution-oriented approach with a variety of stakeholders to make the impact that’s needed to stop the kind of online harassment that too many suffer on a daily basis.

On Re/code, we are committing ourselves to increase our coverage of this pernicious issue, as well as keeping a scorecard of companies on how they deal with it to protect their users. In addition, we will share findings, recommendations and progress from Hack Harassment at our annual Code conference, taking place May 31 to June 2.

As I said, it is a tiny step and certainly not enough. But leaders of the tech industry need to make it clear that they support a medium that loves speech and supports dissent, but does not tolerate hate.

For those who need an infographic on the issue, here you go:

This article originally appeared on

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