Trying to find the room where the ITU child protection open forum took place this morning on the first day of the IGF, I was struck by how many people knew each other. Everywhere I turned I saw people greeting each other like long lost friends. “Was Hyderabad the last time I saw you?” “Tunis feels like a lifetime ago doesn’t it?” – snippets of conversation accompanied handshakes and the enthusiastic patting of backs. I was also struck by how many men there were (wearing suits!), how few, if any, people wore campaign T-shirts with catchy slogans and how many acronyms I did not recognise.

As a feminist and women’s rights activist from South Africa, the spaces that I have occupied over the last decade of my activism looks and sounds very different. Women are always in the majority; babies sit on their parents’ laps, t-shirts and jeans, kaftans and Birkenstocks (and more recently Crocs) are the order of the day; and if I thought that PRSPs, CEDAW, MSM, LGBTIQ, VAW and the babble of other acronyms were impressive, I was way off the mark.

The familiarity that people had with each other and the issues they were talking about made me feel quite anxious and out of my depth. It reminded me why the work I am doing as the coordinator of the WNSPs MDG3 project - a project focusing on the interconnections between violence against women (VAW) and ICT – is so important. One of the aims is to build feminist analysis around the connections between VAW and ICT into global, regional and national ICT policy processes so that women’s experiences of ICT are considered in these spaces. If this is what we want to do we must understand, be able to speak the ‘language’, and of course be present in large numbers with articulated positions and arguments so that we can influence and insert our agendas into these spaces.

But while I was not familiar with the how debates around access, internet governance, cybercrime and multi-stakeholderism (yes it as a word!) are framed in this space; I am familiar with other debates. Pornography, censorship, privacy, protection, security and other issues are areas that have been interrogated by feminists for a long time. Our analysis is sharp and we are able to stand our ground in the most hostile of spaces. So if these are some of the issues that are being discussed at the IGF, where are the women’s rights activists? Why aren’t there more of us here?

If there were more of us here, I’m certain that we would have challenged the ITU child protection panellists in today’s open forum when they spoke about pornography as if it is has been universally defined and is uncontested. They would have complicated the space by asking questions like – do children not have agency? Where are the children we are speaking about and on behalf of? (although we were told that there would be a session tomorrow where children and young people would ‘speak in their own voices’  [as if they can speak in any other voices but their own] In whose interest are concepts such as ‘harmful content’ defined? What are the relations of power that define what is prioritised and what is not? Yes, had we been there in numbers we certainly would have agitated, made a noise, and complicated an otherwise uncontested space – whether or not we were wearing our Crocs.

Back to the child online protection forum.

One of the panellists, Christina Buetti, a policy analyst working on cyber security and crime the ITUs child online protection initiative that has identified a number of online risks for children. These include: pornography, violence, online gaming addiction, online fraud, cyber-bullying and racism. She also identified two important issues for child online protection that parents do not know about. These are firstly, that children are increasingly being targeted by perpetrators, and secondly, that most children are wiling to share info about themselves and families in exchange for goods and services.

John Carr, secretary of the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety, eNASCO shared some of the initial findings of the global survey undertaken by the ITU with member states. He said that while much of what the initial findings show is not new, what is important is that they are the result of an empirical study. The survey found that while some countries expressed concern, the least problematic issue was the children’s exposure to sex tourism. Other findings pointed to the need for more resources and materials for teachers and parents:

“I am known as a critic of the internet industry for not doing enough at a technical level, but everyone I know who works on [issues related to] child online protection with believes is that the most effective way is to teach children and prepare them for how to be safe… The most effective is through teachers and parents therefore material important – but this is not an alternative to expect the industry to do more; it is in addition to what they should be doing”.

The survey also asked governments if they were satisfied with the level of forensic training and facilities for law enforcement agencies to deal with child online protection. It found that there is concern that police that police need training, including technical training as well as proper facilities to investigate these kinds of crime.

Dieter Carstensen from Save the Children asked that we bear in mind the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (2009 is the 20th anniversary of the Declaration) when we are discussing childrens rights and protection online. He said that children have the right to participate in processes that relate to them, the right to access information as well as the right to be protected from abuse and exploitation (amongst other rights). Dieter pointed out that there are more aspects to the issue of child online protection than the most apparent ones that the panel was dealing with.

He also spoke about notions of digital citizenship having “come back into fashion” and explained hat digital citizenship is wider than safety; it is a civic approach related to how you behave and blurs the line between online and offline life. Digital citizenship has many aspects to it, it is not only about creating awareness about the dangers and pitfalls, but should also be seen as a positive perspective trying to build safe spaces and communities. It is about building a culture about being online. “Technology is not evil, it is there to use”, he said.  

Another input came from Natasha Jackson, head of content at the Global Trade Association for Mobile Operators – GMSA who pointed out that in many part of the world mobiles will be the only way that children and adults get onto the internet. If one considers that already more than 30% of Africa’s population has access to a mobile phone, and by 2012 it is anticipated that this will increase to 60%, clearly the mobiles are a critical site. Africa is the first continent with more mobile than fixed-line subscribers and the mobile market is growing by 50-60% per annum.

Jackson mentioned three public commitments that its mobile operators have made as part of their action against child sexual abuse. These are:

1. making sure their customers have methods to report content related to child sexual abuse so they can be removed – law enforcement and other authorities, hotlines etc

2. ensuring swift processes to remove content when they are alerted to it on their servers

3. taking proactive action to block access to content that they can’t take down

So, at the end of the first day of my first IGF how am I feeling? Like I’m swimming in a sea of words and the only way I can get to the shore string them together in coherent sentences that complicates the space that I’ll be in for the next three days.

But tomorrow is another day. And maybe I’ll wear my ‘I am a feminist T-shirt’ and borrow a pair of Crocs.

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