The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms. Dubravka Šimonović, recently released her draft report to the Human Rights Council on online violence against women and girls from a human rights perspective.

The Special Rapporteur’s report includes many key insights from the Citizen Lab’s formal response on this issue last fall and echoes many of our sixteen key recommendations. In particular, we commend the Special Rapporteur for:

Recognizing the impact of online violence, harassment, and abuse against human rights defenders and women’s rights organizations

At paragraph 29, the Special Rapporteur acknowledges that:

“Women human rights defenders, journalists and politicians are directly targeted, threatened, harassed or even killed for their work. …. the online abuse against women journalists and women in the media are a direct attack on women’s visibility and full participation in public life.”

Our submission made reference to Citizen Lab’s extensive work on targeted digital threats against civil society, noting the particular risk posed to women human rights defenders by the abuse of hacking and spyware technologies. In a recent series of reports, Citizen Lab revealed that both a well-known female journalist as well as a prominent female lawyer representing the families of three slain Mexican women were personally targeted with NSO Group’s government-exclusive Pegasus spyware. There is an urgent need to create accountability among private market actors engaged in the sale of digital surveillance tools, which are abused by governments and malicious actors (including intimate partners) alike.

Affirming the importance of encryption and anonymity tools in protecting the rights of women and girls

At paragraph 60, the Special Rapporteur affirms that:

“Encryption and anonymity, separately or together, create a zone of privacy to protect freedom of expression and to facilitate the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers. Anonymity online is important role for women and others at risk of discrimination and stigma, in that it allows them to seek information, find solidarity and support and share opinions without fear of being identified.”

The Citizen Lab has long argued that States should protect and encourage the development of encryption and anonymity tools, which serve as critical guarantors of fundamental freedoms online. Our recent report, Shining a Light on the Encryption Debate, emphasizes that these technologies “foster the security necessary for meaningful inclusion, democratic engagement, and equal access to participation in the digital sphere without fear of arbitrary and unjust surveillance.” In our submission to the Special Rapporteur, we point to the ways in which anonymity and encryption tools help women circumvent gender-based censorship, speak freely, protect their data, and stay safe in the 21st century. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has said, “it is neither fanciful nor an exaggeration to say that, without encryption tools, lives may be endangered.”

Taking an intersectional approach to technology-facilitated violence, harassment, and abuse

At paragraph 28, the Special Rapporteur writes:

“Women are both disproportionately targeted by online violence and suffer disproportionately serious consequences as a result. Their access to technology is also affected by intersectional forms of discrimination based on a number of other factors, such as race, ethnicity, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, abilities, age, class, income, culture, religion, and urban or rural setting.”

In our submission last November, we made a similar argument when we wrote that:

“Women are both disproportionately targeted by these behaviours, and suffer disproportionately serious consequences as a result. However, gender is not the only variable which makes technology-facilitated violence, abuse, and harassment more likely or the consequences more severe. Discrimination on the basis of gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity, Indigenous status, age, religion and other factors also compound, exacerbate and complicate experiences of gender-based violence.”

We also noted that inadequate legal protection, systemic bias, or experiences of police violence create additional barriers that limit women’s abilities to seek the support of law enforcement, and pointed out that Indigenous women, women of colour, women with precarious immigration status, and sex workers are among those groups.

Finally, we commend the Special Rapporteur for her recognition of the critical need to respect the rights to privacy and freedom of expression while protecting the rights of women and girls online

At paragraphs 52 to 61 of her report, the Special Rapporteur discussed the importance of respecting the human rights to privacy and freedom of expression in responding to technology-facilitated violence, harassment, and abuse. As we wrote in our submission, narratives that highlight the vulnerability and victimhood of women and girls are often used to justify new forms of state censorship, policing, and surveillance powers. Many of these proposals are opportunistic rather than rationally connected to the security of women and girls.  In response, we recommended that any new powers proposed to combat technology-facilitated violence, abuse, and harassment be necessary, proportionate, rights-protective, and evidence-based.

Citizen Lab’s submission was prepared with support from the International Human Rights Program at University of Toronto and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC). It has been well received by the academic, legal, and human rights community, and has recently been cited by an intervenor (CIPPIC) in the Supreme Court of Canada case Thomas Reeves v. Her Majesty the Queen. Over the last six months, our findings have been shared both informally—at venues like the Citizen Lab Summer Institute and RightsCon—and in formal presentations at places like Harvard University’s Digital Kennedy School.

Read the full Citizen Lab submission here

Read the UN Special Rapporteur’s draft annual report here [click ‘E’ for English]