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Silenced, spied on, and stalked: why we’re taking the fight for gender equality to the UN

The internet is a vital resource for people to access educational, economic, and healthcare opportunities, connect within and across communities, share opinions, and defend  human rights. But many women and girls, in all their diversity, and those who defend their rights, are far more likely to be exposed to the dark side of the internet; from being harassed or doxxedsurveilled by state actors, to having their education or livelihoods disrupted by governments hitting the kill switch

The power and potential of the internet to both advance and curtail gender equality is now being recognized by the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) through the principal theme this year: “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.”

In this context, Access Now is participating in CSW at the UN Headquarters in New York this week. As newcomers, we’re excited to listen and learn from the leading advocates in this space – and to highlight three key issues that we think disproportionately affect all women and girls in the digital age. 

  • Internet shutdowns disproportionately affect women 

Our latest #KeepItOn report documenting internet shutdowns worldwide shows that, in 2022, there were 187 internet shutdowns in 35 countries. Each time a government deliberately cuts internet access, whether for an hour or a year, this widens gender equality gaps and hampers women’s social and economic development. Particularly in the global majority, women are far more likely than men to depend on the internet to access sexual and reproductive health information, to complete their education, or to generate financial income for themselves and their families – which is why it is so vital that we #KeepItOn. 

  • Targeted surveillance facilitates gender-based violence 

The unlawful use of targeted digital surveillance tools, including invasive spyware, violates the right to privacy, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, among others. The Pegasus Project revelations exposed the extent to which human rights defenders, journalists, and activists are hampered in their work by the use of surveillance tech, which often has a chilling effect.  The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression has recognized targeted digital surveillance of journalists and media workers as one of the three “major contemporary threats” to the safe and free practice of journalism in the digital age. 

Spyware and other targeted surveillance tech can have particularly grievous effects on women journalists and human rights defenders, who are already at heightened risk of online harassment and violence. Authorities may weaponize the information they gather to fuel smear campaigns, blackmail, extortion, and doxxing – i.e. widely sharing sensitive information such as a person’s home or work address, children’s school location, or their intimate pictures and conversations – and encouraging others to harass them as well. We have seen governments routinely doxx women and LGBTQ+ activists to defame, shame, and intimidate them into silence. An entire industry dedicated to developing specific digital surveillance tools exists, one that in turn enables domestic abuse, known as “spouseware, or stalkerware.” 

Such malicious activities can have a devastating impact on women targets, especially given the lack of robust legal or social protections against gender-based violence – which includes physical, economic, mental, and other harms – and the many hurdles presented by existing political, societal, and gender power asymmetries. As well as the psychological effects of fear and worry, women can find themselves shunned and ostracized at work or within their communities, or needing to take steps to limit their movements especially if they fear for their physical safety as a result. The latter is sadly not only a theoretical risk: a recent UNESCO report on global trends in online violence against women journalists, which surveyed over 900 female-identifying journalists in 125 countries, found that 20% of all respondents said they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with online violence they had experienced. 

  • Women have specific digital security needs that must be met 

In his Report for CSW67, the UN Secretary-General called for online security risks and vulnerabilities to be “properly prevented, addressed and eliminated.” Our own experience shows that women and women rights defenders are often targets of harassment, doxxing, censorship, and other forms of gender-based violence online. Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline, which supports at-risk groups and individuals from civil society, found that, in a decade of work, the largest number of cases that it handled for women’s rights organizations related to account compromise (23.6%), followed by harassment (9.4%) and censorship (7.6%). 

It is clear from these findings that women urgently need digital security resources and training to help them stay safe from online surveillance, harassment, doxxing, and censorship. The popularity of off-the-shelf “stalkerware,” for instance, has prompted civil society groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to produce accessible training, tools, and research on the specific risks for survivors of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence, and for the organizations supporting them.

For women, girls, and non-binary people to fully benefit from the economic, educational, and societal benefits of the internet, authorities must address the specific risks they face first, taking steps to ensure that existing gender biases and disparities are not further entrenched online. We look forward to discussing these and other related topics at CSW this week. 

Find us CSW67 

If you’re attending CSW67, find us at the following events : 

  • Side event, “A gender equal world with technologies, digitalisation and AI – what is our roadmap?” (Tuesday March 7, 10-11:30 a.m. EST, UN Headquarters) 
  • Side event, “Shut down, Spied On, and Harassed: The state of digital rights and gender identity” (Thursday March 9, 4 p.m. EST)