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UN experts urge States and companies to address online gender-based abuse but warn against censorship

GENEVA (8 March 2017) - The UN experts on freedom of expression and on violence against women are marking International Women’s Day with a call for governments, companies and civil society organisations to tackle online gender-based abuse and violence, while also safeguarding freedom of expression.

The Special Rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of expression, David Kaye, says: “The internet should be a platform for everyone to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, but online gender-based abuse and violence assaults basic principles of equality under international law and freedom of expression. Such abuses must be addressed urgently, but with careful attention to human rights law.”

“Ensuring an internet free from gender-based violence enhances freedom of expression,” said the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Simonovic, “as it allows women to fully participate in all areas of life and is integral to women’s empowerment.”

Surveys and reports suggest that significant numbers of women have experienced gender-based abuse online. The attacks are said to take many forms including but not limited to blackmail, threats of sexual assault, sexist comment, intimidation, stalking, surveillance and dissemination of private content without consent.

“This abuse is often overlapping in its forms, may involve offline threats and attacks, and can lead women and girls to limit their participation and sometimes withdraw completely from online platforms”, the experts observed.

“These attacks chill and disrupt the online participation of women journalists, activists, human rights defenders, artists and other public figures and private persons,” Mr Kaye says.

However, the Special Rapporteurs stress that all efforts to limit or prevent such abuse should comply with international human rights law.  “Online gender-based abuse and violence are undeniably a scourge, and governments and companies should be taking action against it”, Mr Kaye said. “Censorship and undue restrictions on content could end up undermining the rights of the very women for whom governments and corporate actors may seek to provide redress,” he added.

Mr Kaye warns that vaguely formulated laws and regulations that prohibit nudity or obscenity could have a significant and chilling effect on critical discussions about sexuality, gender and reproductive health. Discriminatory enforcement of terms of service on social media and other platforms could also disproportionately affect women and other users.

“All actors in the digital space should ensure that any attempt to restrict freedom of expression is necessary and proportionate to address violence against women online,” the experts said. 

They suggest that promising human rights-based responses which could be implemented by governments and others include education, preventative measures, and steps to tackle the abuse-enabling environments often faced by women online.

As one affirmative step, governments and private actors should provide education and training on the problems related to online abuse and violence. Civil society and human rights groups have also encouraged corporate responses that help individuals control and define their online experience, such as tools that permit them to block specific individuals, control their privacy, or tailor their interaction to protect themselves against abusive behaviour.

“Apart from preventive measures”, noted Ms Simonovic, “women victims and survivors need transparent and fast responses and effective remedies which can only be achieved if both States and private actors work together and exercise due diligence to eliminate online violence against women.”

Addressing online gender-based abuse and violence also requires research to understand the scope, manifestations, and impact of it; a strengthened emphasis on protection and promotion of privacy by online platforms and enhanced private sector transparency for reports of such abuse and the steps taken to address them.

“In short,” both special rapporteurs concluded, “we strongly support those calling for urgent attention, creativity and cooperation among the many interested parties, and sensitivity to the panoply of rights enjoyed by all people online.”

ENDS

Mr. David Kaye (USA) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in August 2014 by the United Nations Human Rights Council.  Ms. Dubravka Šimonović (Croatia) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2015, to recommend measures, ways and means, at the national, regional and international levels, to eliminate violence against women and its causes, and to remedy its consequences.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests please contact Ms. Azin Tadjdini (+41 22 917 9400 / atadjdini@ohchr.org) or write to freedex@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Bryan Wilson, OHCHR Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / mediaconsultant1@ohchr.org)

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