I spent a full day yesterday focusing on the intersection of feminism, activism, and Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). And I kept running into the same women (the feminist Twitterati?). And these women were mostly already known to me from my own work on the issue (alongside Miz Raftree). This worries me a little bit. Could it be that there are so few feminist / female Techies in the world that we all know each other?! This is an important space. As Valentina says ‘Internet is a strategic feminist issue’. Especially if u subscribe to the opinion that the web is just a new space for old kinds of bad behavior; then this is absolutely a space that requires our intervention. And this should be broadened out even more – technology is a feminist issue. We need to be wary of falling into complacency in thinking ICTs are empowering without recognizing how they have been co-opted. In other words, we need to differentiate between the practical uses of ICTs which are democratizing and the political uses of ICTs which are mapped onto existing unequal social relations.
At the CITIGen session Srilatha Batliwala posed a hypothesis – that ICTs have given rise to a new social paradigm – The Network Society. And this is a paradigm that requires a feminist intervention seeking social justice as it is reproducing power imbalances, and we are taking part in this reproduction. Anita Gurumurthy posed that women have been innovating within the Network Society, and these are sites of subversion, but not of struggle. Feminist activism has concerned itself with appropriating and co-opting of ICTs, but we have not treated ICTs as a determinant of the political economy. So we are trapped in the user discourse, while this discourse is being shaped by the ‘powers that be’. We are meeting, as ‘activists’, in a space that is a vector of capitalism. And this is actually de-politicizing civil society. We now see the rise of new actors such as the Gates Foundation who are hugely active in the areas of technological health innovations and human rights, and yet they are representing capitalist profit driven interests.
Which brings us to our next point: Facebook and Youtube for instance are tools that provide spaces for activism, but they are not liberation technologies. In fact, we repeatedly give up our privacy in order to use these platforms. According to Jac Kee from APC data mining is sold in online auctions – this is how our information supports the profit margins of large corporations. ‘Every time you search on Google for something, this information is gathered and sold’. According to the experts in the room ‘Google are Information fascists’. And this is a core feminist concern. There is content online that is challenging the ideas of normativity and gender normalization. And this is worrying the corporate powers that be. So they try to contain what can be said online and they are battling users. According to Melissa Ditmore, who managed the American part of the ERoTICS research project, SOPA and PIPA were proposed by corporate lobbyists to prevent users from sharing and copying content and to shore up corporate profit (and by politicians who don’t use the internet, otherwise they would know that sharing & copying content is pretty much the ONLY thing people do online).
Regulating the internet = regulating sexuality. According to Melissa Ditmore the internet has become a nexus of moral panic. For instance, the US government requires school and library computers to restrict youth access to “harmful” content. But there is no guidance on what is harmful, so this usually means sexual content. Things that have been limited in different places include the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders website, sites about breast cancer and websites providing information about Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Reproductive Health. And it’s not just governments who are deciding for us what is ‘sexual’. For instance, Facbook doesn’t allow pictures of women breastfeeding (which you can report under ‘nudity and porn’). According to Nadine Moawad Facebook is moving towards open data platforms. But this means more surveillance and less privacy which is critical (and even dangerous) in the context of what can be seen as ‘sexual deviance’ (i.e. LGBTQI). Moreover, in the USA, under 18’s can be prosecuted and put on the sex offenders list for taking a sexual photo on their mobile phone or sexting. But this is private content (!) and it is being used with the complicity of Tech companies to police adolescents.
After a full day of discussions it seems to me that the ‘Techie’ space and surrounding debates, both from a feminist and a civil rights perspective, is sorely lacking in visibility within the broader women’s movement. So many feminists believe the only way to protest is to take to the streets. But it is no less important to protect a website that is providing information about safe abortions which is being attacked by governments and users. And it’s no less important to critically evaluate the ways in which surveillance and lack of privacy is compromising women’s rights and freedom. I hope there will be more opportunities in the future for feminists to discuss and mobilize around these issues – and I hope to be there to tweet about it!!