This is the third time I’m attending the Internet Governance Forum and I’ve never really expected anything too extraordinary to happen here. I’ve felt like part of a feisty band of women with a small but real network of allies and supporters in a nebulous space of government representatives, corporations, assorted NGOs and policy wonks. I mean, making a case for women’s rights and sexuality rights in an environment where ‘content regulation’ tends to be too easily equated with ‘child protection’ is a complicated endeavour.
However, the APC Women’s Program has worked through this challenge doggedly. It was at the Hyderabad IGF in 2008 when Jac and Chat first talked to Manjima and I about being part of the then-nascent EroTICs (Exploratory Research on Sexuality and ICTs) project. And now, two years later, it would seem like the five-country study has become a firm place to speak from about marginalized users’ rights and concerns. Yet, up until this moment of actually being able to talk about EroTICs in a public forum, I have never really been completely sure about how our findings would go down with a general audience. I haven’t really expected that anyone from government, industry or business would really ever want to listen to what we want to say.
So it occurred to me that it was perhaps time to revise one's expectations when we met with two representatives of the ICM Registry and IFFOR (the International Foundation for Online Responsibility) at yesterday’s session on Sexual Rights, Openness and Regulatory Systems. The ICM Registry has spent the past nine years trying to lobby with ICANN for the generic top level domain (gTLD) .xxx. ICM would handle the technical aspects of registering for a .xxx domain and IFFOR would develop the rules and guidelines for it's use.
They gave us their cards with .XXX in big letters. I stared at them for a long time. What are the chances that people at the centre of controversies over content regulation wind up in the same room with women’s rights activists? But this, I guess, is the sort of strange thing that can happen only at the IGF.
The .xxx gTLD is, ICM says, to be used primarily by and for the adult entertainment industry, and in the interest of allowing access to adult sexual services and content on the internet. There are a lot of criticisms of the .xxx domain. As Clarissa Smith on yesterday’s panel said, employees don’t get hauled up for playing hours of Sudoku online, but a single sweep for .xxx domain names browsed at work could result in termination. Also, registering all sexual content under a .xxx domain would make it much easier to filter such content , but more troubling would be the process by which a particular kind of sexual content or service would be assigned the domain. The .xxx domain could become a form of labeling; what kind of content or service would be considered ‘sexually explicit’? Would this include gay and lesbian sexual health sites? What about heterosexual swinger sites? Or sex education? Or what about a site about sexual imagery in art? It is possible that .xxx would throw up new iterations of old conflicts, forcing hurried and unhappy compromises.
What was interesting was how the two gentlemen from ICM were gushing about our research, and Clarissa’s on pornography. The IFFOR representative seemed ready to throw money at us all to produce more research in support of pornography and people’s right to access to a variety of content online. Now, on the one hand, of course it’s important that there be more research on these themes, but would one really want to take money from a corporation that has such a blatantly vested interest in such research? IFFOR-man said that the Foundation would initially get money from the ICM Registry and it’s supporters (.. the porn industry?), but would in fact function like an independent entity bringing together ‘experts’ such as ourselves to develop evidence-based guidelines for how to manage .xxx domains. Cynically, I think how excited they’d be to discover a whole network of UK researchers doing audience reception studies of pornography and how they could be pressed into doing really "big, well-funded research that is the need of the hour" (that said, I think it's very exciting that there is an explosion of serious academic research from cultural studies and reception studies, and political economic analysis of pornography and the porn industry).
There was a moment in the session yesterday when a fellow Indian, chairman of the ISP association and cybercafe owners association, got up to trot out familiar, tired tropes about Indian cultural values and how they are being destroyed by unrestricted (in his view) access to sexual content online. He believed that the "real digital divide" existed between "conservative" and "broadminded" sections of Indian society (clarification to non Indian readers: "broadminded" is Indian short-hand for moral corruption, 'Westernization'), and that it was essential to 'protect' Indian culture and placate the conservative sections of our society, as well as children who would be destroyed by the proliferation of online pornography.
I had to respond of course and tried to introduce data from our Erotics India research that challenge a particular, fond notion of sexual innocence of the Indian wife/mother/child/citizen. I told him that Indians are gleeful purveyors and producers of porn; that the young seek out sexual thrills and risks online and that they are evolving strategies to be safe online; that we in urban India are fairly articulate about our desire for erotic/sexual content and yet are also conflicted about how to talk to, educate and protect our children from this very same content. I told him he oughtn't to be tripping across the world spouting his version of Indian culture and internet use in the absence of solid data and evidence (and that IAMAI's basic quantitative surveys of internet usage are NOT enough)
As I spoke to the IFFOR representative I could see he really liked what I said, obviously. (I wonder if his eyes gleamed as he quickly Googled the potential size of the Indian internet market). He was enthusiastic about the potential for partnerships with academics and NGOs in addressing censorship online. A group like ICM could be an unexpected ally in discussions on content regulation in spaces like the IGF, and it would be interesting to learn more about their experiences and perspectives in grappling with such delicate (and yet surprisingly robust) moralities.I’m going to seek them out and talk to them a little bit more, perhaps even interview them for GenderIT. I’d be most interested to know how they en/counter censorship worldwide, and child protection lobbies in the US. How do they resolve and reconcile themselves to images and connotations of violence in pornography? I've always been curious about the personal moralities of people who work in sexual industries.
So watch this space.