Why Can’t Silicon Valley Fix Online Harassment?

In 1996, during the earliest days of the internet, a self-proclaimed cyberlibertarian named John Perry Barlow published a 16-paragraph essay called “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” It began with a bold plea: “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.” Barlow envisioned the internet almost as a new nation-state, a digital utopia free from the imperialistic hierarchies and rules of the physical world. He proudly proclaimed that “we are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth” — a place where, he continued, “your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”

The document, meant to rouse support against new legislation that would increase government regulation of the web, quickly became adopted as a manifesto. Tens of thousands of websites hosted copies of the statement, at a time when there were only about a few hundred thousand websites in existence. Barlow modeled his vision for the internet after the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and the American Declaration of Independence. But as with the principles advanced by the founding fathers, there were inherent contradictions in the vision of equality and liberty it set forth: It assumed that humans, as disembodied entities online (or cyborgs), would miraculously shed their assumptions and biases about class, gender and privilege.

As we now know, cyberspace did not liberate human society from pre-existing socioeconomic hierarchies and power structures. In some instances, it may have even made them worse. “The historical significance of these ideas cannot be ignored,” Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu write in their 2006 book, “Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World.” “They had an enormous impact on internet writers and thinkers, firms and even the U.S. Supreme Court — an influence that is still with us today.”

The web’s earliest architects and pioneers fought for their vision of freedom on the internet at a time when it was still small forums for conversation and text-based gaming. They thought the web could be adequately governed by its users without their needing to empower anyone to police it. The web’s founders underestimated — or perhaps overestimated — what would happen as the internet grew. It became an unwieldy place where guidelines were an afterthought, and in the process, gave rise to some of the worst behavior the offline world had to offer but with greater efficiency and scale. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of adult internet users have dealt with online harassment. And those numbers go up among young adults (especially women) and nonwhite users. Women are significantly more likely than men to report being stalked or sexually harassed on the internet, and 51 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics said they had experienced harassment, compared with 34 percent of whites. And these numbers are from before last November’s election; since then, online vitriol has seemingly been on the upswing. The spike in sexist and racist remarks in all my feeds has been so unnerving and surprising that I reached out to several academics and software designers to better understand why this issue is still so pervasive in 2017.

One reason, I’ve realized, is that the founding values of the internet are now so societally ingrained that we have trouble seeing past them — even to reach a consensus on what behavior does or doesn’t cross a line. “We are lacking widespread clarity about what we can agree on as digital harassment,” says Caroline Sinders, a designer who was recently hired to be one of the Wikimedia Foundation’s first online-harassment researchers. There is no taxonomy of severity, she explained, no rule book for how to think about the harassment. “We desperately need to start having conversations to figure out what is a digital hate crime, harassment and assault.” Only with that consensus intact, Sinders told me, does it become easier to erect policy and legislation to outlaw the behavior.

Silicon Valley’s slowness to respond to the problems has allowed them to become even more complicated. Del Harvey, head of trust and safety at Twitter, has worked at the company for eight years, during which time the company has become global. She cited an example of harassment in India, in which women being told to “ride a bus” might look innocuous to American eyes but is a reference to the types of assaults and rapes that have happened in the country. “There is always a new vector or form that emerges that we have to understand,” she says.

A handful of groups are finally trying to address the epidemic of harassment in new and innovative ways. The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (co-founded by Barlow in 1990) suggests a tactic called “counterspeech,” or the practice of bystander intervention that overpowers aggressors in an attempt to deter them. That is the primary goal of HeartMob, a nonprofit project unveiled in January 2016 that recruits volunteers to intervene when they see online harassment by drowning out the negative remarks with positive ones. But HeartMob can only do so much. One of its founders, Courtney Young, told me that the site itself has attracted harassment from aggressors who try to create false accounts and shut the site down. As a result, the company is “stepping back and figuring out the best way to understand how to help people who are harassed online,” she says. Community-based solutions often run into this problem: Harassment is too pervasive for independent organizations to tackle alone. Take Crash Override, for example: Like HeartMob, it is an organization dedicated to helping victims of online abuse, and it was started, in part, by Zoë Quinn, one of the female video-game developers targeted in the Gamergate scandal. But it disconnected its hotline last year because of, according to its website, an “overwhelming need for assistance with online abuse.”

These examples are part of the reason Alice Marwick, a fellow at Data & Society who is working on a book about online privacy, is skeptical that much will change. The libertarian culture of the web is now so entrenched that creating new norms has become nearly impossible. Marwick has watched online harassment matriculate from the “fringes” of the internet — obscure forums and message boards — into nearly every social-media platform. Early on, she says, the harassment was dismissed as trolling or wrapped up under the guise of political differences, but now there is “a technique of using harassment in a weaponized and gamified way to shut people down. It’s also now a behavior that isn’t linked to one particular ideology anymore. It’s a set of techniques that anyone can use. It’s free, there’s no way to prosecute, and it’s easy.”

Marwick draws a bleak conclusion: Battling online harassment, she says, is “a lost cause.” She points out that most social-media platforms don’t want to be crucified with claims of censorship for regulating what people can say online. And Silicon Valley tends to be ruled by a libertarian viewpoint — the notion that the less regulation and political interference in technology, the better.

I’m not ready to agree with Marwick, especially when industry insiders do think that there are real, actionable solutions — if they become a priority for the people with the power to employ them. For example, John Adams, the former lead security engineer at Twitter, suggested in an interview in Fast Company that venture capitalists could demand a harassment strategy before funding a project. Adria Richards, a black engineer who faced an onslaught of death and rape threats after tweeting about sexually inappropriate comments she overheard attendees make at a computer-development conference, suggested start-ups put lucrative bounties on devising anti-abuse tools — the same way they do for hackers who find security vulnerabilities and bugs in their products. But based on the behavior of the tech companies that control the internet, ideas like Adams’s and Richards’s don’t seem likely to win out anytime soon.

We live in a time of astounding technological advancements. There are deep-sea drones and live-streaming virtual reality. Why can’t we brainstorm our way toward the ideals presented by Barlow? I got something of an answer while talking with a former colleague, Noam Cohen, about a book he is writing called “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball,” about the origins of Silicon Valley ideology. He has been studying the early writing and commentary of the entrepreneurs and academics who turned the Valley into the global behemoth it is today. He has found that these men “shared an ideology of freedom. They acknowledge the legacy of racism and sexism, but they want to wish it away. They think you can correct your own biases, and that algorithms can solve systemic problems.” As I talked to Cohen, another story of the internet began to take shape, one that looked more like a dystopia. It is entirely possible that these men never imagined the internet would free us from our earthly limitations. Instead they strove to create a world like the one we already know — one that never had equality to begin with.