Feminist reflection on internet policies

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Women human rights defenders and digital security: Reflections with a Latin American accent

Daysi Flores
Daysi Flores on 23 October, 2012
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Daysi Flores Hernández grew up in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Daysi is a civil engineer specialising in communications and social media, an environmental activist and a women's human rights defender. She is the regional coordinator of communications and connections for women's rights organisation JASS Mesoamerica.
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A survey of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) conducted as part of APC’s Connect Your Rights! campaign revealed some interesting practices and perceptions in terms of their use of information and communications technologies in their work. Daysi Flores, a GenderIT.org contributor, analyses the preliminary results of the survey, in light of the realities of Latin America.

“The Internet has become a vital communications medium which individuals can use to exercise their right to freedom of expression, (…) as guaranteed under articles 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, 2011)

Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) use all of the means within their reach to help ensure that their efforts – generally carried out in negative and sometimes precarious conditions – have the greatest impact possible. In the search to amplify their messages, their voices and their struggles, they have explored every potential strategy. And this is especially true if their advocacy revolves around women’s rights specifically. The use of the internet and other digital media in the struggle for human rights has become increasingly common. However, as is true wherever WHRDs act, although these tools offer opportunities, they also entail risks and threats.

In recognition of this fact, the Connect Your Rights! campaign, an initiative of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), conducted a survey in a number of different regions to learn more about the experiences and opinions of WHRDs in relation to online security, as well as assessing their level of awareness and interest in further training. This GenderIT.org article offers comments on some of the preliminary results of the survey, based on analysis from the perspective of the realities faced by WHRDs in Latin America.

The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish, and significant differences were observed between the two languages in the preliminary findings, reflecting differences between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking WHRDs in certain aspects of online security-related incidents. For example, Spanish-speaking respondents reported suffering less harassment than their English-speaking counterparts. Given these results, we need to ask ourselves: Are WHRDs in Latin America more security-conscious in their use of online tools? Or could this be a bias associated with access or some other aspect we may be overlooking?

The number of internet users in Latin America, as seen in Table 1, represents 10.1% of worldwide users (while the region accounts for 9% of the global population). As the statistics demonstrate, the proportion of the region’s inhabitants with access to the internet is higher than the world average. At first glance, these figures suggest that since the Latin American region enjoys higher rates of access, WHRDs here have adopted ICTs to a greater extent than their counterparts in other regions, and therefore have a greater awareness of the dangers and threats they pose – which could logically lead to greater use of tools to ensure their online security. However, there are a number of important factors that need to be taken into account before jumping to this conclusion:

1. Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is not a homogeneous region. In the subregion of Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), for example, there are wide disparities not only between countries, but within countries as well. As can be seen in Table 2, although countries like Costa Rica and Mexico enjoy higher than average internet access rates, the other countries far fall below the world average. This generally means that women’s human rights organisations and defenders have to contract specialised services which, although not specifically designed for them, nevertheless tend to provide higher levels of online security. At the same time, though, they lead to greater inequality in access to services, due to the considerable resources that need to be invested in them.

2. Privatisation and oligopolistic ownership of internet services lend themselves to mechanisms of control. Across the LAC countries, internet service providers are limited to a handful of private companies, which also account for the vast majority of service provision in the region as a whole. This makes it easy to establish mechanisms to control the information that enters and leaves accounts through their servers, as well as to restrict and/or cut off service in certain “conflict zones” or “hot spots” and keep a record of all activity. This in turn means that there are indirect controls on WHRDs, so direct attacks may be less likely.

3. Levels of insecurity. For WHRDs who live in areas marked by a severe breakdown of the social fabric, it is difficult to ascertain whether attacks are due to their human rights activity or whether they are simply cases of common crime. Many WHRDs can only access the internet from their mobile phones, which are highly prone to theft, or at their offices. These could also be targeted for breaking, entering and robbery either due to their work or for petty theft. The WHRDs themselves do not have access to reliable investigative procedures to determine the actual motive. Further, since the state security forces focus on control mechanisms rather than on security mechanisms, even when these incidents are reported (to policing agencies for common crimes, not specialised agencies), there is generally little to no action taken.

Taking these three factors into account, we will take a closer look at the survey results, focusing on three particular areas:

a) Threats and their agents
b) Responses and protective measures
c) Training: Assessment and needs

Threats and their agents

The main online threat reported by WHRDs is harassment. This intimidation could be strictly related to their gender, a matter of discrimination due to the fact that they are engaged in non-traditional tasks and behaviours, such as the use of technology, or perhaps just the simple fact that they are women. This finding also demonstrates the vulnerable conditions in which WHRDs carry out their work in general.

As mentioned above, according to the survey findings, English-speaking women reported more incidents of online harassment than their Spanish-speaking counterparts. At the same, the latter were found to have higher levels of online security training. We could deduce from this that they are therefore in a better position than WHRDs in other regions to prevent attacks. This leads to the question: Is there a correlation between these two factors? Are Spanish-speaking WHRDs more aware, better trained and more proactive than English speakers when it comes to defending and protecting themselves online, and thus less prone to suffer from online harassment? If this is the case, would this be a result of higher levels of training on online security? Or is it due to the long tradition of the adoption and strategic use of ICTs among numerous women’s rights organisations in the region (despite the significant gender-based digital divide observed in Latin America in general)?

And there are other lines of questioning we could follow to further explore this issue. Could the “naturalisation” of violence that permeates Latin American societies be considered a factor when assessing the degree to which Spanish-speaking WHRDs report online harassment and threats in general? Although the survey revealed lower levels of training on online security among English-speaking women, could they be equipped with other tools provided by their socio-cultural context which allows them to more precisely identify harassment in general terms, and therefore recognise it when it extends to the online world? Taking this further, is it perhaps possible that the difference does not lie in the actual occurrence of harassment, but rather in different levels of socio-cultural capacities for recognising harassment both online and off? These reflections could contribute significantly to gaining deeper insight into the practices of WHRDs in different regions and understanding how to prevent online threats more effectively.

In the meantime, between 20% and 25% of survey respondents reported that they had faced incidents of having their email accounts and websites hacked, while only 10% to 15% had experienced the seizure of their computers or other equipment.

But who are the agents of these threats? In the Mesoamerican region, there has been significant regression with regard to freedom of expression and the control of online activity with the justification of the so-called “war on drugs” or the “fight against organised crime”, depending on the country in question. It is therefore surprising to find that, according to the preliminary survey results, it seems unlikely that the online threats facing WHRDs result from overt measures adopted by states. They are more likely to be carried out by private groups or individuals. However, it is quite possible that states use and/or sponsor these groups or individuals to practice covert repression. In numerous countries of the region, telecommunications company owners occupy government positions that result in a fine line between the government and the private sector. At the same time, individuals are used by the police to silence voices of protest and impose social control.

Responses and protective measures

The preliminary survey data reveal that WHRDs – in keeping with the role they play in their societies – do not remain silent when they are targeted. One of the most common measures in response to threats reported by the women surveyed was to organise campaigns around them. This finding may be because the survey was primarily conducted among WHRDs who use technology and communications as a key tool in their work.

WHRDs are as likely to deal with problems or threats themselves as to seek external help. However, this external help never involves the police. On the contrary, they express a complete lack of trust in police forces, which means they neither report threats to the police nor expect them to respond effectively. In Latin America, this lack of trust is rooted in a broader regional context of a history of dictatorships and repression. Moreover, not only do police and judicial authorities in the region lack the necessary tools to respond to the threats reported: on many occasions, police agencies themselves are involved in the attacks. This of course does not absolve state agencies from their responsibility for protecting WHRDs and responding to the threats they face, which remains a pending issue in the region.

One would logically expect that, the more that incidents are reported, the greater the likelihood of adopting measures in response. Paradoxically, however, English-speaking WHRDs are more likely to ignore the problem (nearly a third), while their Spanish-speaking counterparts seem to take threats more seriously. Could this difference be due to the fact that the incidents reported by Spanish-speaking WHRDs are viewed as being more serious? Or is that English-speaking WHRDs work in safer settings, allowing them to feel more secure despite the threats?

Another interesting finding is that WHRDs rarely respond to online security threats by moving to a new server or medium. On the contrary, one in five said that they would report the problem to the site owner. This leads us to wonder whether this trust in operators reflects a lack of information on the functioning of these sites.

When it comes to protective measures, more than half of the organisations interviewed have an online security policy. Around 90% of WHRDs have anti-virus software and more than half use a secure browser add-on. Interestingly, secure file deletion is used by more than half of Spanish speakers but less than half of English speakers. It is troubling to note that aside from these practices, less than a quarter of the WHRDs interviewed use any other security measures, and less than half were concerned about legal issues, despite the growing criminalisation of the use and promotion of these tools in some countries of the region.

Training: Assessment and needs

One of the most interesting findings of the survey was that, regardless of their level of access to the internet, all of the WHRDs interviewed said they needed more information and training on online security. The current insufficiency of education on these issues is clearly reflected in these comments by Hedme Sierra, a women’s rights defender in Honduras: “I studied computer engineering, and they never taught me how these sites and systems really work, much less tell me that there are other ways of protecting yourself or other types of software that are non-proprietary; these are things I’ve learned through activism.”

The training available is rarely consistent, and follow-up is often lacking for various reasons. While it is not unusual that WHRDs expressed the need for more online security training, it is curious that the specific needs stated did not correspond to what they identified as the most common threat they face (harassment) but rather to one of the most common fears online, shared by more than 70% of respondents: the fear of private information being shared without their knowledge or consent. As a result, the majority of WHRDs said they needed training in secure social networking, protecting their online identity, and privacy and security in online campaigning.

The expressed need for safer social networking demonstrates that these tools are widely used by WHRDs, and that the training offered by organisations like APC makes the use of these networks more secure by teaching women more about how to use them and how to protect themselves while doing so. However, it would be interesting to see if more training could lead WHRDs to begin exploring more secure, non-proprietary sites such as EcoBook and other media that are not market-driven, thus contributing to a more coherent and egalitarian revolution.


The edition is a part of APC's Connect your rights: Internet rights are human rights campaign financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)

Image published with permission of JASS Mesoamérica


(1) Information available at Interneti World Stats: www.internetworldstats.com/stats10.htm
(2) Drawn up by the author based on figures from Internet World Stats: www.internetworldstats.com/stats10.htm


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