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Why Intel, media sites, Lady Gaga are teaming up to fight online harassment

The technology company announced a partnership with Vox Media and the singer's Born This Way Foundation to hold hackathons around the country to discuss solutions to an issue that can have a serious impact on Internet users' lives offline.

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A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw, Poland in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture. Chipmaker Intel, two tech sites and a non-profit founded by Lady Gaga are teaming up to work toward solutions on online harassment.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File

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Citing the real-life emotional harm caused by online harassment, Intel is teaming up with a media company and a non-profit founded by Lady Gaga to explore solutions to what’s become a growing issue and to provide a safer online environment.

On Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the chipmaker announced a partnership called Hack Harassment with technology journalism site Re/code, its parent company Vox Media, and the Born This Way Foundation, founded by the singer in 2011.

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“Online harassment is pervasive and can be vicious,” says Brian Krzanich, Intel’s head, in a statement. “If we’re to truly succeed in a smart and connected world, we need to remember that behind every device, game, sensor, or network is a real person with real feelings and real needs for safety. No one company can address this issue alone – as an industry, we need to work together to create a safer, more inclusive online experience.”

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The new initiative will stage a series of hackathons over the next few months with participants from tech companies, academics, and technology journalists to discuss solutions to online harassment, which will be presented at a conference in May.

The partnership, its creators say, is an attempt to examine solutions to the issue, which has personally impacted about 40 percent of adults who use the Internet, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

Figuring out solutions to combat abuse and hate speech directed at Internet users – particularly on social media and in online gaming – has become a particular sticking point for technology companies.

In a survey, the Hack Harassment creators found that more than 6 in 10 tech professionals said the industry isn’t doing enough to combat harassment online, while more than 80 percent believe taking some action to prevent online harassment could be effective.

Intel and its partners say the goal is to work toward meaningful solutions to stem the tide of online harassment, which has gone offline with a practice known as swatting – where a person anonymously calls in a threat, sending a SWAT team to the house of an online video streamer.

“Everybody gives lip service to a lot of things and then nothing actually happens,” Re/code co-founder Kara Swisher told The Verge, both of which are owned by Vox Media.  “And the kind of stuff that happens during online harassment really damages people.”

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Discussions of online harassment too often delve into abstract debates about concerns over the impact of harassment versus the free speech rights of users, she adds.

The issue has inspired some legislative efforts from Congress – with US Rep. Katherine Clark (D) of Massachusetts filing several anti-swatting bills.

But many Internet users argue that more direct efforts, such as better tools for users to report harassment and a universal online code of conduct would help stem the impact of such behavior, which is often directed at women and people of color, the Hack Harassment creators say. Another option, supported by tech professionals in the group’s survey, is to block the IP addresses of people known as harassers.

But while some social networks have adopted technological solutions – Twitter added shared “block lists” recently, The Verge’s Adi Robertson notes – they may not solve every problem.

“If I can't figure it out, the average teenager who's getting pilloried on Facebook or Twitter or whatever has no hope of being able to deal with this except to sign off,” Ms. Swisher told the site. “And that shouldn't be the only choice you have, to sign off.”

But attempts to solve issues such as online harassment and to prevent hate speech using technological tools can fall prey to other issues. Law enforcement officials – who get unwittingly involved in swatting attacks – for example, may not be familiar with the technology that makes such behavior possible, leading to miscommunications.

The Hack Harassment creators are banking on the idea that having public conversations about online harassment will both eliminate misconceptions about the issue and provide a forum for users and companies to work together to develop solutions.

It’s a particularly personal issue for Intel, which pledged $300 million last year at CES to improve the diversity of its workforce.

“At the end of the day, I think we can make a lot of technology that can reduce the harassment levels," Mr. Krzanich of Intel told The Verge on Thursday. “But it's going to be peer pressure — when it just becomes unacceptable societally, that's when harassment will really change.”