Remarks at the Family Online Safety Institute's Annual Conference

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
The Newseum
Washington, DC
December 1, 2016

As prepared

Thank you, Stephen, for that kind introduction. I’m glad to be here. The Family Online Safety Institute is doing an important service to make the Internet a safe place for everyone. The more I learn about these issues, the more concerned I become.

As we’re in a moment of transition, this conference is an opportunity for each of us to see where we stand and find ways to do more and do better. When you think about how the Internet can change people’s lives, it’s clear that this work is critical. The Internet is a place where we can page through history books and explore other cultures. We can stay connected with friends and family who live far away. And we can start businesses that reach millions around the world.

In my own work, I’ve seen how powerful the Internet—particularly social media—can be when it comes to making progress on key human rights issues like gender equality. In the past year, we’ve seen countless online conversations about gender-based violence go viral. In the Ukraine and Russia, thousands of women used the hashtag “I Am Not Afraid To Say” to share their personal experience with sexual assault. In China, individual stories of women who have experienced abuse, often at the hands of intimate partners, have gone viral on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. And in the United States, women have shared their stories under any number of popular hashtags, and some cases end up in mainstream media.

Consider that one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime, and it’s no surprise that so many around the world have stories to share. But the stigma around sexual assault is almost as universal as the violence itself. And that’s where online and digital spaces have made a difference. They have given survivors connection and community, and inspired national conversations on a historically difficult issue. We can hope that survivors’ stories will change minds, change harmful gender stereotypes, and ultimately change the statistics we see about gender-based violence.

For this and many other reasons, the Internet should be a tool that everyone can use, a place where everyone can go. But as we all know, that is far from a reality today. For every triumphant story about how the Internet helps perpetuate good, there is a story about how it helps perpetuate violence, harassment, or inequality. Just this week I saw a report that 47 percent of Americans have experienced harassment and abuse online. What’s interesting is that, while both men and women are harassed online, the nature of the harassment is different. The type of abuse experienced by women, especially young women, was more likely to have a severe, negative impact on their life offline. Men reported being called names or being embarrassed, while women were stalked, sexually harassed, or threatened with rape.

These instances don’t happen in a vacuum. When a woman running for office finds a photo of herself online—photoshopped into a sexually explicit scene—that has an impact on women’s ability to participate in democracy. When a woman posts an opinion or a joke online and receives threats of rape in return, that has an impact on freedom of expression. When the reputation of a business is wrongly attacked on YouTube or on Yelp—simply because it’s owned by a woman—that has an impact on women’s economic opportunity. That impact means that gender-based violence online matters—to all of us. It matters to people who care about strong political systems and freedom of expression, to people who care about the economy and entrepreneurship, to people who care about funny jokes and good TV shows, and to people who want their children to use the Internet without fearing for their safety.

It matters from a foreign policy perspective as well. Gender-based violence is one of the key issues I’ve worked on at the State Department. We’ve see how it holds back women and girls from getting an education, earning an income, participating in political processes, and ultimately contributing to their societies. And that holds all of us back from reaching our shared goals of peace, prosperity, and security. So addressing these forms of violence—wherever they occur—is an important part of U.S. foreign policy. The good news is that, together, we can do something. I’d like to offer three ways that governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector can work to address the issue of online gender-based violence.

First, we have to acknowledge that it is a problem that needs to be solved. Sometimes, people look at these issues and say, this is inevitable. We can’t do anything about it. The National Democratic Institute recently launched a campaign called “Not The Cost,” because they kept hearing people say that violence against women running for office was simply the cost of being a part of politics. Violence is not the price women should have to pay. And it’s not the price democracy should play either. Women’s voices and experiences are too critical to public discourse. So we need more researchers, more journalists and more advocacy organizations to follow in the footsteps of the Family Online Safety Institute, acknowledge that this is a problem, and put a gender lens on their own work about online harassment.

Second, we need to break down the barriers that keep women from thriving in the technology sector. There are many reasons why we need more women and girls pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math. And gender-based violence on the Internet is high on that list. We need women serving as CEOs and board members, as engineers, as product designers, and as customer service representatives. That way, when products are designed, when new features are tested, when issues come up, women are at the table and on the team, bringing their perspectives and experiences. By the way, this is more than just a pipeline problem. Institutions need to address the systemic discrimination that hold women back from succeeding in STEM fields.

Finally, we need institutions to take action at an institutional level. I know how hard it can be to change the way an institution behaves. For the past three years, I’ve worked to change the way the State Department does business, so that women and girls are more fully included in our plans, policies, and programs. That has not been an easy task. But by and large, people understand that these issues matter, and that U.S. foreign policy is stronger and more successful when it includes the voices and experiences of women and girls.

From my perspective, that’s where we stand on this issue. We need to articulate exactly what the problem is and the ways that we can work together—at every level of leadership—to solve it. That’s the challenge that we face today. We need everyone—experts and entrepreneurs, CEOs and survivors, developers and rights defenders, journalists and policymakers—to come together and find solutions that work.

And there’s no question that the United States should be a leader in this effort. We have the experience based on our work tackling violence against women in the United States. We have the moral standing as the world champion of democracy, free speech, and human rights. And we have the unique role as the country where the world’s largest tech companies are based. Our responsibility could not be more clear. But the clock is ticking. Technology is already getting ahead of policy, and the longer that happens, the harder it becomes to figure out what frameworks are needed to make online spaces truly accessible to all.

I’d like to end with a reminder of what’s at stake. Qandeel Baloch has been called the Kim Kardashian of Pakistan. She was a controversial online persona who became famous for her selfies and cultural commentary. Some people dismissed her, while others said she stood as a symbol for women’s rights in Pakistan. But she was killed by members of her family—all because her online presence was viewed as dishonoring them. For her, the cost of being online and speaking her mind was her life.

Violence should not be the price women pay to be online. But it’s up to us to ensure that the freedoms to say what you think or to be online are not freedoms for some, but freedoms for all.

Thank you.