WOMEN, THE WORLD WIDE WEB, AND ISSUES OF PRIVACY

by Leslie Regan Shade (from FEMINIST COLLECTIONS vol. 17, no. 2, Winter 1996, pp. 33-35)

Women's Web Content

World Wide Web content designed for and by women has been increasing,1 and covers a diverse topical range for the academic, the activist, and the anarchist. There are both solid and indispensable information and resources, with a sense that information can be empowering, and a playfulness and zestful irony. It is a fulfillment of what Maureen Ebben and Cheris Kramarae called "creating a cyberspace of our own."2 Sites can be loosely classified into these topical categories: Computer Science and Engineering; Academic Programs; Gender and Sexuality; Healthcare; Activism; and Fun Things (including personal homepages and 'zines).

Several online ventures have been initiated to get women actively involved in Web creation and design. One is Webgrrls!,3 conceived by Aliza Sherman, which provides an alphabetical listing of Webgrrls! and links to local Webgrrls! gatherings, classes, and job information. Another is the Spiderwoman4 mailing list, which offers women Web designers a supportive atmosphere for dealing with technical, social, and economic issues of Web development and consulting.

Access to and equity on the emergent information infrastructure, however, are paramount public policy concerns. Dale Spender echoes the remarks of many feminists when she writes that, "The glass ceiling may be preventing women from getting into the top levels of general management, but it is also preventing them from getting into cyberspace in appreciable numbers. Yet this is where the new communities are being formed; this is where the new human values are being forged."5

Despite the increase in women's content, more active visibility of women online, and an increasing percentage of women online each year,6 recent surveys indicate that gender equity has not been achieved. The third WWW User Survey conducted by the GVU Center at Georgia Tech inquired into the gender demographics of Web users. Of the more than 13,000 unique responses received in a one-month period from April to May, 1995, only 15.5 percent of the users were female, with 82 percent male, and 2.5 percent choosing not to reveal their gender. The researchers noted that, "compared to the First [GVU] Survey in January of 1994, this represents a 10 [percent] increase for women and 12 [percent] decrease for men. This trend is quite linear ... and suggests an even male/female ratio could be achieved during the first quarter of 1997."7

The surveyors' conclusions may be encouraging, but the numbers are still far from equitable, and women already online have recently raised the issues of privacy and harassment. The recent furor over a site titled "Babes On the Web" provides some illustrative material concerning emergent gendered social norms on the Internet. Here I would like to address some of the issues raised by this controversy and provide a brief overview of the technical issues concerning security and privacy on the Web.

Babes on the Web

In the Spring of 1995, a website site called "Babes On the Web" (BOTW) appeared, the creation of Robert Toups. Toups created links to the personal and professional Web pages of a multiplicity of women and rated the pages using a ranking system (the "Toupsie" scale) consisting of small GIF photos of Toups from the neck up. (On a scale of 1 to 4 photos, one picture indicated a mere "Dog-O-Matic" rating, whereas four pictures signified the accolade "Babe-O-Rama.")

Toups wrote:

Along with being a Capitalist Pig, I am a proud Male Chauvinist Pig. As such, I have gathered all the World Wide Web sites of Women I could find. Instead of rating them on quality of design, I am grading them on a four Toupsie scale according to their personal pictures. My rating system is totally subjective to my personal tastes and whims. If this page is offensive to you, then go to The National Organization for Women (NOW) Home Page and cry to them. Maybe they will organize a cyber-protest against my page or maybe you will find something else to bitch about. Either way, I won't care.8

Incensed women accused Toups of harassment, electronic stalking, and also of violating intellectual property and copyright norms. One irate woman launched a campaign to get Toups' ISP (Internet service provider) to deny him service, another set up her own "Anti-Babes on the Web page," and several women offered their own online commentary on BOTW.

Toups claimed that "Placing a Home Page on the World Wide Web is an invitation for entry. Having a personal photo on that page is an invitation for it to be rated based on the `Toupsie Scale.'" Although many women take exception to having their personal homepages unknowingly linked, can providing a link to a publically-accessible Web page be constitutive of harassment? Unwritten and unenforceable Net courtesy dictates that permission should be sought if one intends to provide a link to someone's homepage through their website. Though Toups assured women that, at their request, he would un-link their pages from his site, some women claimed that their repeated requests were not honored by Toups, and this refusal led many to consider Toups' behavior harassment.

A feared consequence of Toups' actions is that it can discourage more women from participating online and designing their own homepages. For instance, will women be less apt to post personal photographs of themselves, for fear of being harassed, ridiculed, or subject to rating on the "Toupsie scale"?

What are the remedies if women believe their privacy is breeched because of untoward "advances" due to the public nature of their homepages? One solution is to aid and educate Internet service providers (ISPs) in developing policies for friendly and supportive environments, while respecting the tenets of freedom of speech. Online harassment guidelines have been advocated by several groups, including the Coalition for Public Information. They recommend such guidelines for everyone who receives an Internet account, plus a mechanism for including grievance procedures for complaints of sexual harassment.9 Some networks, such as educational and community-based "free- nets," have instituted AUP's (acceptable use policies) that would be excellent reference points for determining and administering "netiquette" guidelines for appropriate behavior in broader electronic forums.

Privacy and Security on the Web

As one security expert stated, "The moment you install a Web server at your site, you've opened a window into your local network that the entire Internet can peer through. Most visitors are content to window shop, but a few will try to peek at things you don't intend for public consumption. Others, not content with looking without touching, will attempt to force the window open and crawl in."10

Most Web homepages are in the public domain and therefore not confidential. To ensure that documents at your site will remain confidential, they can be protected by:

1. Restricting the IP address, subnet or domain: only browsers connecting from particular IP (Internet) addresses, subnets or domains can access them.
2. Restricting user name and password: remote users must provide a name and password to get access.
3. Providing encryption using public key cryptography: the text cannot be read by anyone but the intended recipient.
4. Asking for user authentication: determines and verifies the identity of remote users, simply through user name and password, or through more complex cryptographic means using public key cryptographic authentication systems, such as digital signatures.

Most Web servers log every access, including the IP address and host name, time of the download, user's name, URL requested, status of the request, and size of the data requested. Some browsers even provide information about the client the reader is using and the client's e-mail address. Net norms dictate that, just as you shouldn't forward or post a personal e-mail message from a public site without the author's permission, site visitor data shouldn't be made public. Such statistics are private and outsiders can be prohibited from knowing detailed information by summarizing the logs (i.e., "You are the 1,500th person to access this site"); insiders can be protected by having a clear site policy on Web usage and training on security risks.

Two main standards bodies, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) are working on the design, development, and deployment of security mechanisms for the Web.11

Conclusion

Toups claims that "Babes on the Web" provides a forum for "...people to discover the wonderful HTML creations of women from around the world. Cyberspace's image as an `All Boys' Club' has been dispelled as men and women travel through the lists of links to the works of women showing off their lives, careers, kitty- cats, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, lovers, artwork, dreams, goals and desires."12

However, many would disagree with Toups, and instead his creation has kindled a robust debate (both online and in the media) regarding the gendered nature of harassment, issues of freedom of speech, and Web privacy and netiquette guidelines. I concur with Ellen Spertus who has written that: "In some cases we'll be able to put pressure on harassers, but in others we won't be able to stop them. So what?! Mr. Toups doesn't detract from my dignity when he acts foolishly. There's no reason my peace of mind should be disturbed by what he does. I could flame him, publicly ridicule him, etc., but I have better uses for my time."13

[Leslie Regan Shade (http://www.facl.mcgill.ca/gpc/shade.html) is currently completing a dissertation, Gender and Community in the Social Constitution of Computer Networks, at McGill University's Graduate Program in Communications. She has been active in public interest issues surrounding the information infrastructure in Canada. (Her e-mail address is: ac900@freenet.carleton.ca).]

NOTES

1 Feminist Activist Resources on the Net, maintained by Sarah Stapleton-Gray [online]. Access URL: http://www.igc.apc.org/women/feminist.html
Web-Sters' Network [online]. Access URL: http://lucien.SIMS.Berkeley.EDU/women_in_it.html
2 Maureen Ebben and Cheris Kramarae, "Women and Information Technologies: Creating a Cyberspace of Our Own," in Women, Information Technology & Scholarship (Urbana, IL: Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, 1993), p.15.
3 Webgrrls! [online]. Access URL: http://www.webgrrls.com/
4 Spiderwoman Mailing List. To subscribe send a note to: Majordomo@lists.primenet.com with Subscribe Spiderwoman Your Name
5 Dale Spender, Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace (Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 1995), p.xxiv. See also: Leslie Regan Shade, "Gender Issues in Computer Networking," in Women, Work, and Computerization: Breaking Old Boundaries, Building New Forms, ed. Alison Adam et al. (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1994), pp.91-105; and Leslie Regan Shade, "Is Sisterhood Virtual: Women on the Electronic Frontier," Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Series vi, v.5 (1994), pp.131-142.
6 John S. Quarterman and Smoot Carl-Mitchell, "Is the Internet All Male?" Matrix News [online], v.5, no.5 (May 1995). Access URL:gopher://akasha.tic.com/00/matrix/news/v5/gender.505
7 GVU Center's 3rd WWW User Survey Home Page. (The Graphics, Visualization, & Usability Center at Georgia Tech). [online], (April 1995). Access URL: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys/survey-04-1995/
8 Babes On the Web FAQ 1.0 [online]. Access URL: http://www.tyrell.net/~robtoups/TEXT_BotW_FAQ.html
9 Stan Skrzeszewski and Maureen Cubberley, Future Knowledge: The Report: A Public Policy Framework for the Information Highway (Toronto: The Coalition for Public Information, 1995). [online]. Access URL: http://www.nlc- bnc.ca/documents/infopol/canada/cpi-fk.txt
10 Lincoln D. Stein, The World Wide Web Security FAQ. Version 1.1.1. [online], (November 20, 1995). Access URL: http://www-ns.rutgers.edu/www-security/wts-documents.html
11 W3C Security Resources. [online]. Access URL:http://www.w3.org/pub/WWW/Security/
IETF's Working Group on Web Transaction Security. [online]. Access URL: http://www-ns.rutgers.edu/www- security/wts-documents.html
12 Babes On the Web (July 9, 1995).
13 Spertus, Ellen. "Thoughts on Web Pages Listing Women" [online], (May 22, 1995). Access URL: http://www.ai.mit.edu/people/ellens/Gender/webwomen.html


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Updated May 17, 1996