Content regulation is one gesture away from censorship and surveillance practices. The tension between managing content that could potentially result in harm towards a section of the population (e.g. spam) and silencing of viewpoints (e.g. lesbian issues) is not an easy one.
This is evident through the contentious site of pornography, where feminists and women’s rights advocates cannot clearly agree on one side of the argument or the other. Does pornography constitute as harmful content by circulating representations of passive, objectified and often violently prescribed notions of female (hetero)sexuality? Or does this conflate all different forms of sexually explicit representations as one, singular and problematic discourse, when in fact, there exists multiple narratives about what sexuality means to different people in different space – some of which have turned to the internet as the only viable space for expression?
Filtering software technology, regularly implemented to ‘protect’ internet users from the harm of pornography, has been known to over-block content on the internet, including information about women’s sexual and reproductive health. Women’s movements have struggled for many decades to articulate female sexual agency that is active, desiring and not necessarily appended to heterosexuality. Is it then useful, to call for censorship just when heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and transsexual female representations of sexuality are beginning to populate cyberspace, by naming them as the moral and legislative equivalent of pornography?
Content regulation and censorship have often been countered with arguments for freedom of expression and information. However, such deliberations are also usually imagined and legitimised through locating them within the realm of civil and political rights. One problem with this line of debate is that the perspective and stance of universality is normatively male. How then, can a feminist perspective of content regulation and censorship intervene without being appropriated or subsumed as an invisible subject? Is there a point of particularity of being a female subject negotiating self-representation and representations of others in this field?
While we were preparing this edition, women’s rights advocates – both male and female – in Iran sent out a solidarity call to bloggers to help disseminate information about their “One Million Signatures Campaign”. In less than 2 weeks, the campaign site has been blocked 3 times by the Iranian government. On 4th March 2007, less than 10 days after the alert, more than 30 women involved in this advocacy effort were arrested outside of the Tehran Revolutionary Court during a peaceful protest. While most of the advocates were released on 9th March, Mahboubeh Abbhagolizadeh and Shadi Sadr were only released on 19th March after spending 10 days in solitary confinement inside Section 209 of the Tehran’s Evin Prison. Clearly, there is no disconnection between online censorship and offline censure.
How can advocates of women’s human rights, advocates of development, civil and political rights activists as well as feminists navigate the terrain of content regulation and censorship without inadvertently overlooking important perspectives and impact that affects sections of society differently? How do our values and comprehension of concepts like ‘freedoms’ calcify into normative understandings of the speaking subject? Especially in global policy spaces, where norms are articulated and institutionalised, these questions need careful deliberation and committed engagement.
The genderIT.org team of writers surfaces some of the tensions faced at the Internet Governance Forum, and countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa when dealing with content regulation and censorship from gender perspectives in this edition. We also feature as resources, a paper by Namita Malhotra interrogating how women's movements in India negotiate with issues around sexuality and censorship in the context of wider legislative, cultural, and ethical debates on pornography, and Mavic Cabrera-Balleza reflections upon the "Content regulations from gender and development perspective” panel organised by the Assocation of Progressive Communications, Women's Networking Support Programme at the first IGF held in Athens, Greece from 30 October to 02 November, 2006.
For more information about the "100 Signatures Campaign" and related activism, go to we4change.
CONTENT REGULATION & CENSORSHIP EDITION
- Mommy knows best, or perhaps the church, or maybe the school? A conversation on online content regulation
- Women and Philippine Media: At the Fringes of Freedom
- The contented and the discontented: internet content regulation
- Pakistan’s Web of Censorship
- Content, Contingencies and Conflict on the Internet