What is a feminist internet? According to the 17 Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPIs), it is an internet that respects diversity and human rights online, and in turn allows people to fully embody those rights, in a virtuous cycle between the online environment and on-ground interactions. These principles present an important counter-narrative to some of the troubling realities of the 21st-century digital world and speak to a critical optimism that feels largely absent from most discussions about the internet today.
These principles present an important counter-narrative to some of the troubling realities of the 21st-century digital world and speak to a critical optimism that feels largely absent from most discussions about the internet today.
This is because the reality of how the internet has been harnessed falls far short of the techno-optimist expectations that once accompanied the advent of the web. Take access. Over half the world’s population still cannot connect to the internet, and ‘meaningful’ access that could support the actualization of human rights remains conditioned by multiple ‘digital divides’ - North-South, urban-rural, educated-less educated, rich-poor, male-female-gender diverse. The ‘digital gender gap’ for instance - the proportion of women using the Internet on average across the world – is 12 % lower than the proportion of men using the Internet (ITU 2017). Though this gap has been narrowing since 2013 in most regions, it is still widening in Africa, where the proportion of women using the Internet is 25 % lower than the proportion of men. According to the After Access surveys supported by IDRC and Sida from 2016 to 2019, the figures for low-income countries show a worrying trend, where only one out of seven women are using the Internet compared with one out of five men. The surveys in Bangladesh and Rwanda, for example, showed a 62 % gap in Internet access between men and women – which in turn is mirrored in other usage indicators.
Second, take the experiences people have once they are online. Harassment, shaming and abuse of women, LGBQI+ and gender-diverse individuals seem to be increasingly the norm, and this further entrenches the digital divisions. From the spreading of malicious misinformation to the non-consensual sharing of intimate images (NCII) to death threats, these attacks have a chilling and detrimental impact on human lives on the ground. Personal accounts from female public and political figures, for instance, suggest some pretty shocking abuse on social media platforms like Twitter. And a Pew study conducted in the United States showed that 41 % of Americans said they experienced online harassment, and 70 % of women said they thought it was a “major problem”.
Harassment, shaming and abuse of women, LGBQI+ and gender-diverse individuals seem to be increasingly the norm, and this further entrenches the digital divisions.
Yet unfortunately other than anecdotal personal narratives and a few studies from the global North, we don’t know how many people experience harassment and shaming in the world, and have very little evidence for what is happening in the global South to women and LGBTQI communities as they navigate the digital ecosystem. Further, we still have few means and good ideas for how to genuinely address the issues through legal, regulatory or policy mechanisms. The lack of access, the dearth of good evidence, and a shortage of policy ideas present serious challenges as our world becomes ever more digitally integrated and reliant on connectivity to conduct our work, our commerce and our communications.
To confront these challenges, we need research that helps us understand not only the multiple divides in access but also how people experience the digital ecosystem. And we need to understand the complex landscape of the internet and its governance. To this end, the Women’s Rights Program of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), with the support of IDRC, has been working since 2016 to fill in the research landscape. First, there was a mapping study on gender and digital technology that revealed the critical gaps in the research and policymaking around gender equality and technology in middle- and low-income countries, from meaningful access, to the datafication of our online lives, to online gender-based violence, to the labour and economy undergirding the internet. The mapping highlighted, among other issues, a lack of investment in the subfield of gender and ICT research and the epistemic and discriminatory impact this has had on how internet policymaking happens, particularly in terms of gender equality and equity.
Second, we are now facilitating frontier research on the possibilities for a feminist internet with the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN). Launched early in 2019, FIRN is a three-and-a-half-year multidisciplinary research project engaging with researchers from around the world who are exploring critical issues in our digital ecosystem. Drawing on the seminal work forged by feminists and activists from around the world on the FPIs in 2014, the network is exploring new methodological approaches to digital research centered on these feminist principles. It is also strengthening research capacity and practices in the still-emerging field of gender and digital technology, and facilitating peer exchanges across the global South. FIRN research is intended to yield a nuanced and more accurate picture of what is happening online with regard to access, labour, datafication, and online gender-based violence, to help inform policy advocacy work and policy development on these key issues. It is also aiming to provide substantive evidence to drive changes in policies, laws, and discourse around internet rights, and ensure that the needs of women, gender diverse and queer communities are taken into account in internet policy discussions and decision making. The hope is that FIRN researchers will over time be able to leverage their work to help shift gendered structures of power that exist online and on-ground.
FIRN research is intended to yield a nuanced and more accurate picture of what is happening online with regard to access, labour, datafication and online gender-based violence, to help inform policy advocacy work and policy development on these key issues.
Digital technologies are becoming ever more a part of our world, and we need to (re)claim an internet that integrates and respects our different realities, contexts, ages, disabilities, sexualities, expressions, and socioeconomic, political, ethnic, religious and gender identities – one that allows us to flourish rather than flinch. This is the goal of a feminist internet, and we hope that this research will help us foster this kind of positive, plural expression, and a more optimistic shared future online and on-ground.
Article in L’Actualite about FIRN: https://lactualite.com/monde/internet-pour-toutes/