A feminist internet and its reflection on policy, violence against Women, privacy and digital security
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Written by valentina pelizzer hvale of One World Platform
What does a feminist internet mean? Does it already exist or need to be invented, shaped and shared? Where can we find it and is it worth looking and working towards it?
I am a feminist since I can remember for myself. To be precise I was identifying as a girl, and when the girl started getting older the world, the usual fellow teen that can make our lives a miracle or a hell, started to tell me who I was, what I could do, but more and more often what I could not do. That's was exactly the time I came out as a feminist and since than I stayed truthful to the quest, navigating the challenge of genders designed around us, our bodies, our life-choices and so on.
It was in 1992 that the cryptic ICT – Information and communication technology enters my life: computers and then the internet. The combination was fascinating and kept growing until in 2003 the internet became fully my place and space of politics and work. And as soon as I enter it, I started questioning it. It was missing something, the women.
The Balkans, were not different from many other place of the world, civil society groups were increasingly using it for communication, for generating and store information and for networking. Two things were very much common: women were generally using but not administrating or maintain systems/machines1and they were not confident in their ability to understand technology. As many other feminist activists I felt the urgency to have more women into tech convinced that it was a strategic asset we could not just leave up to the 'male experts'.
The human mind-intelligence is embodied in the real world. If the real world is sexist (but we can add misogynist, homophobic, exploitive), it is very likely that most of the technology that develops will have the virus of sexism in its core as well. That core will seamlessly define rules and space of the virtual world. But if feminism was an integral, indispensable part of virtual space, technology and media then it would be able to stand tall and would “fight” shoulder to shoulder against the ruling ideology, values, beliefs and behaviors of course.
If feminism was part of the infrastructure and programming language since the invention of Internet following its up to date development, it would practically flow through all of the things related to Internet and technology, from the fridge to the oven, from TV to cyborgs, from Intel to Google, from Facebook to Reddit, from Linux community to Microsoft2.
A diversity genealogy The first unavoidable step into a feminist internet is the act of naming all creators, inventors that nurture the infrastructure and the code. They are all the she or not-just-he mathematicians, scientists, technologist that we never learn into schools they exist3. They are relevant because of their contributions to the development of tech and as role models. We always look around us for people to get inspired by. Their visibility, the fact we do not have to dig and apply for post-doctoral studies to find their biography, is essential to inspire and motivate any young girl to respond to the call. So it is an act of feminist political practice and solidarity to acknowledge all the women who teach us, regardless we read, listens or watch them on screen or they were our companions, friends, colleagues. Humans learn trough examples, we need to be generous and populate our worlds with all the names, actions and invention of all the women we know. This bring us to the first principle for/of a feminist internet:
A feminist internet starts with and works towards empowering more women and queer persons – in all our diversities – to dismantle patriarchy.4
To build a genealogy is important but is not enough, we need universal, affordable, unfettered, unconditional and equal access to the internet5. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 16% fewer women than men used the internet in developing countries in 2013 and 45% in sub-Saharan Africa, partly due to the costs of mobile broadband making up a higher percentage of women’s income6. The access we advocate is different from the the precarious, proprietary access, granted by corporation that shape and decide the way we interact with one another. Think of the internet.org7, the initiative proposed and promoted by Facebook in India, under the cover of free mobile access for the poor it mask a brutal monopoly8. A perfect machine not only to monitor, surveil and harvesting our data/information but most important to instigate our desires, generate our consumption needs and direct them towards their advertising companies9. And since Facebook is global only by its size (currently the biggest populated states after China) it is important we understand that the gift of internetorg is not one of generosity, is instead one-fit-to-all-kind-of-standard based on western white capitalism where patriarchy is at the root of the system. If we understand this, then we understand the importance of advocating for access with/from a feminist perspective.
So the feminist principle of the internet are a feminist agenda that should be part of the agenda of any feminist activists, individuals, group or organizations and should consistently and by default be part of Womens Human Rights Defenders strategy, because the feminism we advocate is: 'an extension, reflection and continuum of our movements and resistance in other spaces, public and private.
It is not an add-on or a pop-up window of any sort but is our agency: awareness and decision of understanding the internet as 'a transformative public and political space' as in fact it is. Reclaim it as we do with and for many other things. In doing so, we need to remember that among us there are privileges of many kinds: race, age, class, gender, education, and access. 'We must claim the power of the internet to amplify alternative and diverse narratives of women’s lived realities'. For this reason the feminist principles of the internet cannot turn into an ideology but need to be an open evolving platform. A space of agitation and construction of political practices so that the internet facilitates new forms of citizenship that enable individuals to claim, construct, and express our selves, genders, sexualities.
And it precisely for this reason that we should not confine ourselves to the use of internet as a tools but must understand, monitor and engage with those who govern the internet. Now the governance of the internet is a very complex universe,: a decentralized and international multistakeholder network of interconnected autonomous groups drawing from civil society, the private sector, governments, the academic and research communities and national and international organizations10. The revolution represented by the emergent information society, the divide between the north and the global south made clear the necessity of a governance framework, and in a long process run from 1998 to 2001 the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the General Assembly of the UN decided to establish a global participatory public process which was the World Summit on the Information Society(WSIS)11. This was held between 2001 and 2005 and set the shared governance12 internet framework: “Internet governance is the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the internet”. Despite the formal recognition of an equal participation and relevance of civil society in any of the matter of the internet governance, it is in the definition and attribution of these respective roles13 that the inequality of power appear clearly.
After 10 years of participation in this multistakeholders14 it is evident how governments, private sector and the international organizations mainly run the shows. Still it is the presence of civil society that force the discourse to be public and this continuous monitoring, tracking, claiming generate many acts of resilience, global and local advocacy and counteract the limitation of this hyper-sophisticated English speaking spaces. And is exactly in this dimension that a feminist discourse need to be present.
In the UN and other policy bodies world of declarations and statements, language assumes an incredible potentially binding relevance to establish principles of rights and grounding demands so 'as feminist activists, we believe in challenging the patriarchal spaces that currently control the internet and putting more feminists and queers LGBTQI people at the decision-making tables. We believe in democratizing the legislation and regulation of the internet as well as diffusing ownership and power of global and local networks.'
If it was not for the endurance of many activists and feminists the internet rights would not have been acknowledged as human rights. Policy spaces were very neutral/male, the path to include gender had not been easy. It was essential to do not limit gender just to a numeric evidence of how many girls/women access and use technology but instead deepen the conversation on technology related violence against women and on the intrinsic connection with privacy, data protection and safety as opposed/alternative to the pervasive and threatening concept of security and surveillance.
Violence online and tech-related violence are part of the continuum of gender-based violence. The misogynistic attacks, threats, intimidation, and policing experienced by women and queers LGBTQI people is are real, harmful, and alarming. It is our collective responsibility as different internet stakeholders to prevent, respond to, and resist this violence.
The internet is since its beginning one of our ally for our work of women’s rights activists. We use it to raise awareness, engage in dialogue, create networks across borders, mobilize people and put pressure on decision makers. That's why the internet’s role in enabling access to critical information – including on health, pleasure, and risks – to communities, cultural expression, and conversation is essential, and must be supported and protected.
Tech-related Violence against women was not an issue until few years ago. Activists made it visible, accumulating stories, data and developing strategies, tools, solidarity. Online violence such as cyber stalking, hate speech and blackmail violates our rights to privacy, work, public participation, freedom from violence and freedom of expression15. What we witness, increasingly is the violence that surround women online, where all the misogynist practices revive and exacerbate.
Revenge porn is the everyday sexist meme of the internet, enacted by violent intimate partners, who breach into our data, dig, modify and target aggressive campaign against us. The same model is used to threat women and gender rights advocates under the fire of misogynistic hate speech. Womens Human Rights Defenders experience this every day of their life and many of them have become knowledgeable in using technology to protect themselves and their groups. Those strategies are only one part of the solution, there is a need to recognice and develop legal remedies at the local/national as well as the global level. And its is exactly here were the question become even more intricate.
The patriarchy of the world is constantly awake there is a continuous effort to control the imaginary of the internet to sell products or control people. That's why a feminist internet need to strongly object to the efforts of state and non-state actors to control, regulate and restrict the sexual lives of consenting people and how this is expressed and practiced on the internet... Recognize this as part of the larger political project of moral policing, censorship and hierarchization of citizenship and rights.
The same internet we use in our lives is largely privately owned or had come under scrutiny and invasive government control after the Arab Spring and as the last few years marked by Manning, and Snowden revelation, we all know that governments are interested in security based on massive data harvesting and mass surveillance. They do this in collaboration with private corporation which not only get billions worth contracts, but has limited interest is resisting to request since their main goal is to maximize profit and open new markets.
Tech related violence has a very basic paradigm to maximize prevention and develop effective remedies. A safe internet means an internet that recognise privacy by default. An essential human rights based on the consent of individuals to decide when, how, when, and with who each single individual want to share any kind of his/her personal data: text, image, video. The current paradigm is going in the very opposite direction. Surveillance by default is the tool of patriarchy to control and restrict rights both online and offline. The right to privacy and to exercise full control over our own data is a critical principle for a safer, open internet for all. Equal attention needs to be paid to surveillance practices by individuals against each other, as well as the private sector and non-state actors, in addition to the state.
Which leads to another feminist principle. Everyone has the right to be forgotten on the internet. This includes being able to access all our personal data and information online, and to be able to exercise control over, including knowing who has access to them and under what conditions, and being able to delete them forever. However, this right needs to be balanced against the right to access public information, transparency and accountability.
Feminist, gender and LGBT activist understand the importance of privacy in relation to safety and the importance of consent to define the existence or not existence of violation. Feminist movements have defended women’s right to privacy while also challenging the notion of “private violence”, turning it into a community health problem, a public issue. In the digital world, however, women’s privacy is being threatened and connected to violence in new and chilling ways.16
The internet had made us thinking, when clicking on the magic box of social networks and other 'free' services, that we have accepted and entered in a consensual pact. This is not true. A pact where one of the part reserve to itself the power to change the rule of the games (Terms of Services) at its exclusive convenience is not an equal pact. A pact that authorize one part to forward our information without informing us is not consensual. A pact that allows one of the part to put a camera in the most intimate and private room of our lives and to spy upon us following the scenario of tech-fantasy movie such as minority report17, to monitor our intention, foreknowledge18to commit a crime, or go against the law is neither equal or just. Is just abusive and violent and need to be disclosed, regulated and sanctioned.
A feminist perspective on the critical questions of internet is a clear cut against many paternalistic rhetoric of protection. A feminist lens put the finger on and generate practices of resilience that can help to bring a more equal relation among net-citizens, corporations and governments.
We cannot be content with this, we need to understand the internet in all its layers and commit our feminism to these arena to defend our right to consent without having it diminished.