Short Subjects


"Untitled" by Ingrid Neuhofer Dohm>

WHOA: Women Halting Online Abuse

Linda L. Hinkle

I remember with great fondness my early days on the Internet, starting back in 1993. I could hardly believe that this incredible world of connectivity and resources was available right there on my shabby little desktop! Over the years, my love affair with the Internet has grown and flourished. I look around and see that I am not alone in this feeling. The Internet is changing the way our whole world interacts, and over the upcoming few years I have no reason to doubt that it will expand in influence until there really isn't any noticable line between "real world" and the Internet. We do business here. We meet friends here. We learn here. We live here.

As such, I see a growing need for the Internet community to address some of the "skeletons" in our collective closet so that the world we are creating both online and off can be a better world. One of these skeletons is online harassment and abuse, a fact of life on one level of another for many women as well as some men.

Demographically, large numbers of women are a new thing to this community, and our pioneer voyage into the depths of cyberspace was not always met with welcome and support. Even as you read this, somewhere on this great communications network there is a woman being silenced by harassment and abuse. Probably a great deal more than one.

While legislators all over the world try to deal with the issues of online harassment and abuse through the creation of bills and laws that are sometimes dangerously close to censorship, I propose that the best solution to these problems is the self monitoring of those providing the resources of connectivity.

In the United States, there are existing laws regarding libel, harassment, and stalking. Yet because our law enforcers are often not familiar with the culture of the Internet, they are often hesitant to put these laws into effect. Courageous women all over the nation have fought back through lawsuits and struggle with law enforcement agencies, putting themselves and their family often at physical risk of harm. I propose that what we need is not a proliferation of more tough Internet crime laws, but the mere application of existing laws that are used to protect your rights involving other media.

For example, if someone prints an ad in the New York Times using your name and address and suggesting that you would like to be sexually attacked, no one is going to question that your rights have been violated. You will very likely be able to sue the harasser, and depending on the circumstances perhaps the Times themselves (unless you are a public figure in which case it would probably depend on the exact nature of the ad ).

If someone prints the same message across the newsgroups, using a hacked account with your name on it, the response of the Internet community may be somewhat less sympathetic than it would be in the Times case. Why? Because we have been fed the notion that the Internet is an oasis apart from all reality and society. But real people get hurt here.

Let's use another less extreme example. Suppose you regulary go to a certain grocery store. You aren't forced to go there, there are ten others in the area, but you like it. But suddenly one day you go to the grocery store and a man starts following you around shouting insults at you, making lewd comments etc. You leave the store and come back another day. He is still there and does the same thing. You complain to the manager and he responds "tough lady, he has a RIGHT to be here..if you don't like it, go shop someplace else". You would never put up with that would you? But you would agree that that's perfectly sensical on the Internet?

You might, then, start wrting letters to the district manager in charge of handling that store. He or she doesn't want to see his store get a bad reputation so they institute some policies that stop that sort of harassment from happening. They have not been forced by a law to do this (though yes, in this case they probably would be...but for the example's sake, bear with me). They did it of their own accord. You are then free to shop in that store. Your harasser can go there as well, but he can no longer harass you without being ejected.

My organization, W.H.O.A. seeks to use consumer power and the power of education, not legislative power, to develop a less harassment-tolerant Internet community. Our mission statement reads: The mission of W.H.O.A. is to educate the Internet community about online harassment, empower victims of harassment, and formulate voluntary policies that systems can adopt in order to create harassment-free environments. W.H.O.A. fully supports the right to free speech both online and off, but asserts that free speech is not protected when it involves threats to the emotional or physical safety of anyone. W.H.O.A. further asserts that online harassment is about power in a community (the Internet) that has been previously statistically dominated by a certain type of individual: white, heterosexual, privileged men. While W.H.O.A does not wish to single this group out as an enemy, we recognize and celebrate that the tide of the community is changing as people from all walks of li! fe b egin to become active participants online. As such, we must begin to assert our power as a group toward the protection of all people online against harassment targeted against them based on gender, sexual preference, race, ethnicity, age or privilege. W.H.O.A. is primarily an organization of women, but we welcome men who demonstrate sensitivity toward the issues of harassment and a willingness to support our cause.

W.H.O.A. can be reached at web site for more updates.

Lynda L. Hinkle


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