Response to mySociety

mySociety, the organisation that runs the “What Do They Know” freedom of information platform has written a post following complaints about our #dontsubmittoStonewall FOI project with Legal Feminist. Their post and our response is below.

Dear mySociety 

#DontSubmitToStonewall FOIA campaign 

We are the two groups involved in this campaign: it was launched by Naomi Cunningham on the Legal Feminist blog in Februrary, and analysis of the information and related policy work is now being undertaken by Sex Matters.   We have read your notice of 24 May responding to multiple complaints, and we are pleased that you have resisted the attempt to close down our collective public transparency project. Thank you for allowing the requests – and the substantial amount of information disclosed as a result – to remain on your site; and for staying true to your goal of helping citizens to understand how power is wielded, and acting together to challenge abuses of power. 

We read  your report Who Benefits From Civic Technology? highlighting the tendency of civic technology platforms to have predominantly male user bases. As you note, civic technologies lower the barrier to individuals engaging with  public bodies, but women face more barriers than men both offline and online. One of those barriers is that when women speak up in the public square they are often shouted down, piled on and unreasonably criticised and harassed. 

But we note that this report ignores sex, talking instead about “genders,”  and describes users as “identifying as Male” and “identifying as Female”. We don’t believe that being a man or a woman is simply a matter of identity; sex matters. We also note that the vast majority of the volunteers who run WhatDoTheyKnow are men.

The report says,

“If platforms have disproportionate usage by one gender, there is potential for the gender associated with lower usage to be marginalised, or at the very least, have issues relevant or important to their gender marginalised.”

It gives an “example” that women are more likely to push buggies or shopping trolleys and are concerned by broken pavements, whereas men are more concerned by potholes damaging their cars.

Women are more concerned by the replacement of sex by “gender identity” in public life, because it is predominantly women who are suffering the associated harms: the sexist reinforcement of gender norms, the impact on women’s safety, privacy and dignity, the destruction of women’s sport, and the threats to our ability to discuss the reality of women’s lives.

Our campaign provides a real life example, and a real world test of your commitment to sex equality. Some women ventured onto your site and organised a campaign to crowdsource related FOI requests. They used a memorable phrase (not unlike “Fix My Streets”) and the common internet device, the hashtag. They appear to have been targeted by multiple complaints aimed at silencing them, calling their legitimate FOI requests vexatious or hateful. The CEO of the powerful organisation about which they were concerned also complained about them publicly.

After careful consideration you found nothing that came close to “unlawful, harassing, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harmful, obscene, discriminatory or profane” content” in the requests, nor were they vexatious. But rather than dismissing the coordinated complaints themselves as vexatious, you felt compelled to distance yourself from the female campaigners using the site and to remove their hashtag. That damaged our ability to coordinate organic community action; the core purpose of MySociety. 

Like you, we support the rights to equality and freedom from harassment for transgender people. We also support the rights of women not to be discriminated against based on their sex, to retain control of their bodily privacy and personal boundaries, and to have access to single-sex spaces and services. These are modest and reasonable demands, upheld and enshrined in the Equality Act 2010; and yet, because we defend them – and argue that the law as it now is should be correctly interpreted and applied – Stonewall and its fellow travellers seek to demonise us as hateful bigots. 

The intention behind the hashtag was to make it easy to find requests, and to allow participants to check whether a public authority had already been covered: we had no wish to inconvenience or hound organisations with repeated  requests. 

We are indeed seeking to exert pressure on public bodies to reconsider their involvement in the Stonewall scheme  which we believe is inconsistent with the Nolan Principles of  selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership (Sex Matters is calling for a public inquiry).

We are not seeking to do this through  making nuisance or vexatious requests – but  by using FOI to uncover the nature and extent of Stonewall’s influence, in order to promote scrutiny and debate. We believe this is wholly in line with the spirit of “What Do They Know” which exists to create collective knowledge and allow people to act together as citizens and communities empowered by access to information. Indeed the new “projects” feature is designed to do just that, and we hope to develop a campaign in future using it.

Rather than banning the use of hashtags, you could regard this as a helpful model for anyone else contemplating a similar collective FOI campaign. We hope that you will reinstate the hashtag, and reflect on how the dynamics that drive women out of the public square (both real and virtual) have been replicated on your platform by the vexatious complaints you received. Or, if you wish to operate a general prohibition on explicitly campaigning hashtags, you could substitute a more blandly informative hashtag; #Stonewall or #DealingsWithStonewall would do. 

We hope you will post a link to this response (or the response in full) on your website, and we would be happy to continue this discussion with you.

Yours faithfully 

Legal Feminist 

Sex Matters