In the dark alleys of the internet

Posted on June 7, 2009.

Be smart, beware. Photo: Mercedes SayaguesDo you erase your browser history after using a public computer? It’s pretty much like using a condom in casual sex, or avoiding dark alleys: extra security, lowering your risk.

Leaving your cybertracks for strangers to follow is not a good idea. Or for those closer to home. In fact, at home. Say, an abused woman calls a hotline late at night. The following day, her husband discovers the link in her browser history and beats her up.

The internet brings so many opportunities, and some dangers.

Perpetrators of cyber-violence can be women. In May, an Australian woman was condemned to 26 months in prison for cyber-stalking an American Idol contestant. She hacked the American’s ’s email and My Space account, her mother’ s and her room mate’s, and sent false messages on their names – from across the world.

In South Africa, where I live, several teen girls have been lured from their homes by men they met on Mxit, a popular SMS service.

In 2007, a debate about a virtual rape in Second Life posed  tricky questions. Is it a crime or just bad cyber-etiquette? Should it be banned? Is it akin to sexual harassment or exposing children to porn on the net? What about videogames with built-in rape?

The debate helps us confront a reality: the internet reproduces what happens in the real world.

Real discomfort

Virtual rape is not as bad as real life rape, but can be traumatic nonetheless.

I’ll never forget the vilest pornographic email I received in response to a story about gays and AIDS in Mozambique I posted as editor of PlusNews, a web agency specialized on news on HIV/AIDS - the discomfort, the sense that something slimy and foul-smelling was oozing from my computer onto me, like an unwelcome ejaculation. I couldn’t work on the terminal for a while. My space had been violated.

Already the real world is  violent to women. We don’t need that in the virtual world.

Women are fighting cyber-violence. Take Back the Tech campaigns to keep mobile phones and the internet safe from harassment, bullying and violence. Check out its advice for young people: Keep your Chats Exactly That!

United we stand. In Brazil, complaints forced Volkswagen to drop a dealership that ran an ad portraying a battered woman with the slogan: “We will fix you up”.

A new law approved in March in Argentina condemns physical, psychological and symbolic violence that seeks “to degrade women or control their actions by means of threats, harassment, bullying (…).”

Will the term “symbolic” cover violence in cyberspace? Time will tell. Stay on line - and mind your step in the dark alleys of the internet.