New spaces: same old worries

Transparency, democracy, inclusivity, equal access, people centred… sound familiar? These and other concepts have grounded the work of the women’s movement and other movements for social change and justice for decades. They also at the core of the WSIS principles that were highlighted at the ‘WSIS principles: a development agenda internet governance’ workshop that I attended yesterday.


So why then do I approach writing this with such trepidation, even though earlier I felt like I did ‘get it’ despite my anxiety about not being able to converse as easily as those around me at the IGF? Whatever the reason, as I write I am aware of the huge gulf between what I think I know and the contested meanings that this knowledge has in different places and to different people. I also know that I have absolutely no control over that. What inclusivity means for me does not necessarily mean the same thing to someone else; same goes for understandings of equality, access and justice.


I found this particularly troubling during today’s workshop as panellists spoke about the need to formally articulate what the developmental agenda for internet governance should be. One suggestion was to set up a dynamic coalition on the development agenda. For me, a development agenda implies not only the recognition that inclusivity means not only making sure that developing countries are included and participate in the procedures and policy outputs, but also exploring, understanding and responding to why they are excluded by the (sometimes imposed) structural and other conditions which make them ‘developing’ countries in the first place. It means confronting the realpolitik of governance by interrogating where power is located and in whose interests it is being exerted.


APC executive director Anriette Esterhuysen, one of the panellists, emphasised the importance of the development agenda in the review of the IGF and decisions about whether and in what form it continues. She made the point that developing country participation has not been strong in the IGF processes - if they relate to the IGF as a process that has not addressed their interests, this is certainly going to influence their position on whether or not to support the continuation of the process. Good point. Same goes for others.


What has been clear to me over the past three days is that there are many competing interests – obvious for a space like this, right. But what is worrying is that it seems that women’s interests are at the bottom of the rung. How else do you explain a workshop on a developmental agenda where the word ‘woman’ is mentioned only once: by Esterhuysen when commenting on the make up of the panel – more women than men, which was a welcomed change. How can ‘women’ not be mentioned when violence against women has been identified as a key developmental constraint?


I know that women’s rights issues are my issues because I’m an activist and a feminist. But surely they are everyone’s issues? I remember writing column many years ago about my disappointment in male activist friends when it comes to women’s writes issues. I wrote: “It seems that when the collaborators of our oppression are common - capitalism and racism – then my passion has reason. But the moment I speak of the enemy called patriarchy, and identify the oppression in the private spaces of our homes and relationships, then suddenly, my voice is muffled”.  I’m feeling very much the same way today. Disappointed, angry and sad.


We all expressed outrage in our common struggle against censorship when the incident at the ONI Asia launch took place two days ago. Why then is then no similar expression of outrage against the absence of a women’s rights agenda at the IGF? Why are we not talking about violence against women in relation to privacy, security, surveillance and cyber crime? Why is the only talk about sexuality and the internet related to child online safety? Why?


I also attended the ‘Preserving free expression on the internet and protecting children’s rights online’. I should have known, after that my extreme reaction to the earlier workshop, that I would not find any comfort. Expecting a heated discussion, I was very surprised (although I really shouldn’t have been) to find there was none. Instead there was much agreement (mine included) of the need to ensure child online safety because as one of the panellists commented “no one can deny that children need protection” and the need to provide this attention is urgent.


I felt as if I’d been hit over the head – the second time in one day. My sense is that the consensus around child online protection is framed as a moral imperative that works to brand anyone who dares question the extreme domination of this issue at the IGF at the cost of other issues, as a ‘child hater’ or one is asked: ‘I thought you are interested in (read: cared) about children being safe online’. I mean, what else can you say?


I thought to myself, if there is such a groundswell of support for child online protection (I’m told that the issue has increased in priority; evident by how the focus on this area has grown over the last few years) and this groundswell has resulted in a global response that is financed and has the attention of governments, the private sector and civil society, why in the world has there not been a similar response to violence against women, particularly when we know that ICTs have changed the way in which women experience and confront violence.


When I started writing this blog I meant to report on the two sessions I attended yesterday. Clearly it didn’t turn out that way. Nothing I’ve written is new even though this is the first time I’ve attended the IGF - that’s the troubling thing.

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