Today is the 101st anniversary of International Women’s Day and women are facing a new threat to their rights—and sometimes even to their lives. The vast array of information available about us on the Web is leading to new forms of harassment and discrimination against women.
In a chilling revelation, a woman writes about a man who raped her years ago and was never brought to justice. She moved to another state and yet her rapist was able to find her and torment her. She speculates that he was able to find her on a website called Spokeo. The website, she said, provided “incredibly detailed” information about her and about her apartment where her rapist tracked her down. “It listed everything from the types of pets I had to my profession, and included a street-view map showing our building.”
Spokeo and other data aggregators collect personal online and offline information about individuals without their consent and sell that information. Other institutions—from employers to courts—use information from social networks and other websites against women. One third of employers say they’ve rejected job candidates because of a photo where they had a drink in their hand on a social network page or wore provocative clothing. But who does that apply to? Women.
Women have also lost custody of children, not because they’ve done anything wrong as a mom, but because they have posted something sexy on their boyfriend’s MySpace page. And when a male rival wanted to intimidate a woman, he posted a Google map of her house with a message that she had a rape fantasy and men should come and rape her.
The tactic of using sexual messages to put someone into harm’s way is standard on social networks and could be thought of as a new form of sexual harassment. A study by University of Maryland researchers found that users in a chat room with a female user name received twenty-five times more harassing private messages than users with a male name. Rather than being cornered and beat up in a dark alley, women now need to be concerned about being ganged up upon on the Web.
In my new book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy, I call for a right to privacy on the Web and penalties for sexual harassment and discrimination on the Web. It’s time that offline rights apply online as well.