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 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.