The Breakthrough Voice 7th December, 2016

Imagining and Building a Feminist Internet.

What is the thinking behind a feminist internet and what might it look like? What are the key issues of feminist internet and what are potentially its main building blocks? Is internet access for women and sexual minorities being increasingly compartmentalised into ‘good access’ and ‘bad access’? Is surveillance gendered and therefore are the consequences of tech surveillance gendered too? These are a few critical questions that were in focus during the ‘Imagine a Feminist Internet’ conference held on 29 and 30 Nov 2016 in Mumbai, India. The discussions during the conference drew on the Feminist Principles of the Internet. These principles offer a gender and sexual rights perspective on critical internet-related rights and were drafted at the first ‘Imagine a Feminist Internet’ meeting in Malaysia in April 2014.

Imagining and Building a Feminist Internet
29 and 30 Nov 2016: participants from various non-profits/ organizations gather together for a two day ‘Imagine a Feminist Internet’ conference at Mumbai, India (Image credits: Harleen Sidhu)

The first day of the conference saw critical discussions on online and offline identities, on loitering online, on ‘anonymity’ as one of the principles of feminist internet, on women’s safety apps, and on concepts of surveillance and whether much of censorship and surveillance in India is actually driven by gender; as an example think about the mobile phone ban or restrictions placed by the local Panchayat on girls in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh (India). In other words, is surveillance gendered, and if yes, how do we begin to analyze and question this gendered surveillance?

A few conference participants speak about: what does a feminist internet look like to them?

The second day of the conference, started with a focus on the question – how is micro-targeted digital porn changing human sexuality? The discussion on gender and surveillance as well as on consent continued on 30 Nov 2016 as well. On consent, one panellist argued that consent is absent in most parts of our lives, and even when we do speak about consent, it’s only when relating it to sex or sexual assault. The narrative around consent needs to permeate our entire lives for it to truly matter! The contours of consent gave way to a critical session on protection, and what discourses of safety and vigilance do to freedom in the digital age.

Bishakha Datta speaks on consent, Amrita Madhukalya on women and online spaces and Anja Kovacs on safety :

The conference ended with a promise to translate the Feminist Principles of the Internet to a language that is fun and also accessible to all.

Reflections on the discussions

Personally, the conference was a moment for me to sit back, listen and reflect on the connections between various ideas and issues on feminist internet, and to look at the many pertinent questions being raised by brilliant minds at the conference. Questions such as, is ‘anonymity’ a double-edged sword? Without a doubt, it helps activists and members of sexual minority groups, but does it also empower trolls in a virtual world? If yes, then can it still be one of the Feminist Principles of the Internet? When we choose to loiter online, is it because perhaps it’s all too easy to do that, instead of confronting or loitering on a seemingly unsafe street? Imagine a girl who looks out her window at 8 or 9 PM and since it is dark, instead of loitering on a street, sidewalk or a public space, chooses to loiter online. Would this then be a cop out? In other words, do we need to confront our fears, as well as patriarchy and misogyny head-on in an offline world and then reap the benefit of the change in the virtual worlds we inhabit? Also to turn the question on its head, can women truly freely loiter online, or the online world, which just as the offline world, expects conformity? I think, it does! As one panellist pointed out during the conference, “(in a virtual world or on the internet), if you are bearer of a female avatar or not a male avatar, you are exposed to vulnerabilities.” In other words, do we loiter online, or at best just tread very (emphasis here) carefully!

In other words, if we live in a deeply divided and sexist world, then it is quite likely that those who code and those who become part of the virtual world will replicate the real world in one way or another. Does this mean that if we deal with the fundamental issues in the real world, we’ll organically see the ripple effect of those changes through all things related to digital, internet and/or various technologies? Or would building a feminist internet require intervention at both the offline and online level as the two are entangled, perhaps more so than we can ever imagine?

Let us add to this, the questions and concerns that have come to the fore because of the relatively new technologies, for instance, let us look at virtual reality. A woman was sexually harassed in a virtual reality game and some of the questions that have come up are: can one really get harassed in a virtual space? Will the law recognize this, and if the law does not recognize this as sexual harassment, then did the harassment actually happen? Does virtual sexual harassment feel just like real-world sexual harassment and does it cause any trauma? In this particular case, the woman left the game wondering if virtual reality was destined to become yet another space where women are chased out by targeted harassment. Fortunately, the creators of the game acknowledged the experience and ‘created an in-game solution and granted players an ability to create a personal bubble around their avatar that makes anyone who enters it (the bubble) disappear from view.

However, is this workaround somewhat similar to asking girls, women or sexual minorities from disappearing from the streets or public spaces or to stay at home (in a personal bubble) in order to stay safe? Or to carry pepper spray or to learn self-defense techniques, in order to protect themselves from unsavoury or criminal elements. Can we truly imagine a feminist internet, if we are constantly focusing on protection or safety narratives rather than focusing on those who engage and view the world through a sexist lens?

Related but slightly different case study could be that of IoT (Internet of Things) devices. When you think of an IoT or a connected device, such as a ‘home assistant,’ and it responds to you in only a female voice. What does it reflect? Does it not reflect that perhaps the men (or women) who created the IoT device could only imagine an assistant or a secretary or a (domestic) helper only as a woman, the sound being the embodiment of a real woman? If this is true, then who might have they imagined as the boss or the human this female voice is constantly assisting without complaining? My bet is that we are still building most of these new connected devices for white, straight, cisgender, man!

The discussions during the conference also forced me to reflect on the many layers surrounding the narrative of consent, especially when we try to speak on supposedly controversial subjects like porn, feminist porn, sexual expressions etc. Also what about true accessibility of the internet and the new technologies? Are we thinking of all groups? Are we thinking about power structures and ableism? As one visually impaired participant pointed out – ‘I cannot use an App, if the App developer has not followed the accessibility guidelines.’

During the session on surveillance, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much of the surveillance we go through such as on CCTV cameras etc., the gaze could still be on the female body as the people sitting behind the cameras are ‘anonymous’ and quite possibly male. Also, there is what I refer to as the normalisation of constant surveillance, where in so many cases we have just stopped questioning it, as either we don’t know whether we are being surveilled, or we don’t have enough technical knowledge, time or patience to slow down and go through the lengthy privacy terms and conditions every time we download an App or join an online platform, or avail an online service. Have we not then accepted the current state of hyper-surveillance as the new normal?

Needless to say, I came back from the conference with way more questions than answers! But I think, this is quite okay, and perhaps this was also the end goal of the various discussion sessions, to trigger in us the curiosity to look at various ideas, concepts and issues relating to the feminist internet from various angles, rather than to stick to one true version of what the answers to all the questions might be. Also without a doubt, once we know the questions it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore them and to not join the many activists and organizations working to make a feminist internet possible for all of us! I am so very glad to have now become part of this wonderful process of conscious building of a feminist internet.

Note: This blog provides just a taste of discussions and questions raised during ‘Imagine a Feminist Internet’ conference in Mumbai on 29 and 30 November 2016. The two day conference was organized by a Mumbai based non-profit organization, Point of View, along with EROTICS and the Internet Democracy Project. Views expressed under the blog section ‘Reflections on the discussions’ are that of the writer and not necessarily that of the organizers or other participants at the conference.

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