Feminist Tech Tools

31 August 2016

Image: Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate the main control panel of EINAC, Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer – the first computer. Source: Wikipedia

A feminist internet works towards empowering more women and queer persons – in all our diversities – to fully enjoy our rights, engage in pleasure and play, and dismantle patriarchy.
A feminist internet can mean many things, it means that everyone has affordable, unconditional, open, meaningful and equal access to the internet; it means acknowledging that attacks, threats, intimidation, and policing experienced by women and queers is real, harmful, and alarming, and is the responsibility of corporates but also our collective responsibility; it means that the right to free expression includes the right of women and queers to sexual expression and gender expression; and it includes principles on access, movements, public participation, resistance, free and open source software, anonymity, agency and so on. But even as we’re working towards and fighting for the foundations of a feminist internet, there are tools that are being built upon the infrastructure that we have today which support feminist ideas.
Slowly but surely, the default “user” is moving from being a white cis-gendered heterosexual man, to including other, diverse possibilities for human preferences and needs.

They are the kind of tools that we haven’t seen in the past, because of the hierarchy of whose needs have been met and the preferential way in which voices and opinions have been valued. But things are changing – feminist priorities are being recognised within the realm of tech tools and innovation. Slowly but surely, the default “user” is moving from being a white cis-gendered heterosexual man, to including other, diverse possibilities for human preferences and needs.

There are still many challenges that lie ahead in terms of reaching the goals set out in the feminist principles of the internet, but in the meantime, there are some great steps towards it being taken by technology tools which speak to feminist needs and principles.

Addressing common feminist problems

Some tools are slightly tongue-in-cheek. Cathy Deng’s tool Are Men Talking Too Much is an easy way of “checking who’s dominating the conversation”. It’s easy to use on mobiles, making it a realistic possibility for people sitting in meetings, wanting to do something with their time other than rage-tweet about the mansplaining going on in the room. It’s overly binary in its distinction between genders, but as far as helping the user to act as a watchdog on male-identified people who are talking too much, it does its job. Are men talking too much?

Highlighting our biases

Language analysis can be a useful way of highlighting our implicit bias in the way we speak or write. For example, Kat Matfield’s Gender De-Coder looks for overly masculine-coded or feminine-coded words in texts, and points them out. It draws upon research done into the way that job advertisements use overly gendered wording to sustain gender inequality.

This idea has been taken further by Textio, a service which analyses job adverts for more than just gender bias, looking for words that put people off or make others feel unwelcome from the very beginning. Unlike some of the other tools, though, this one seems to already be getting traction in the corporate world. Highlighting bias is all very well: but with the right tools, we can also replace things we don’t want to see in our feminist internet. The Chrome extension the Un-gender replaces gendered pronouns with ungendered equivalents, and the Firefox extension Lavender does the same thing.

Highlighting bias is all very well: but with the right tools, we can also replace things we don’t want to see in our feminist internet.

Building networks and sharing information

Being online allows easier and broader information and knowledge sharing. Some feminist groups are taking advantage of these new publishing opportunities, such as the Brainstorm Quarterly online journal based in Kenya, which publishes e-books on topics ranging from women and feminism in Kenya, to security and mental health. Or, for example, @genderlogindia – a Twitter handle which acts as a crowdsourced hub on gender“ with a new guest curator every week. Their tactic of using a single account to build community and raise awareness of a variety of issues is a great way of taking advantage of the reach of online networks. Dalit History Month uses a timeline tool to educate people about the historical struggles of people and women in the South Asian region and diaspora from less dominant and oppressed castes.

Some of these networks bring together feminists to work on – and hack – specific feminist issues, like the FemHack which ran last year and will run this year.

Feminism as user control

A feminist internet puts control in the hands of users – we want to be able to “exercise control over our data, including knowing who has access to it and under what conditions” (Principle 5.6, Memory). Some tools, though not explicitly feminist, seek to do this through a variety of tactics, like AdNauseum, an obfuscation tool. It takes control away from corporations who are learning about us from what we click, confusing them by accompanying our real clicks with many more ‘fake’ ones.

The same studio developed TrackMeNot, a browser extension which hides our search profiles by “issuing randomised queries to search engines”. Instead of hiding from corporations and Internet giants, both of these tools actively create a noisy mess of false leads, allowing the user to behave as they want to, while being lost in the crowd.

On a similar note, Open Paths is an application which gathers your personal location information (similar to lots of smartphone applications) – but this one grants access only to the user themselves. It allows the user to download and manage their location history, and share it with specific research initiatives as they choose.

Access to information

A barrier to our desired “unrestricted access to information” is coming to us in the shape of algorithms and filters whose activities lie beyond our control, showing us only a portion of what we want to see. Unfiltered News looks to change that, by providing us with news stories from outside of our regular ‘filter bubbles’. Instead of Facebook or Google showing us the stories it has calculated that we “want” to see – this tool shows topics that are less reported on in different areas of the world. How search works Source: https://www.google.com/insidesearch/howsearchworks/algorithms.html
But access to information can also be controlled by states, and when this happens, it can be hard to know what’s going on.
But access to information can also be controlled by states, and when this happens, it can be hard to know what’s going on. The Open Rights Group, a digital rights group in the UK, built a tool to allow a user to check if a site is being blocked. On a much broader level, the Open Observatory for Network Interference is studying blocking and interference around the world, trying to detect censorship and surveillance online.

Staying safe

There’s a variety of apps that address a common problem for women around the world: physical safety. One of these is called Panic Button, which turns a user’s Android smart phone into a secret alarm which can be activated in an emergency, alerting others in their network. Since its inception, human rights defenders in the East and Horn of Africa have received training on the use of Panic Button and helped design future iterations. In India, some of these innovations have been criticised as costly or out-of-step with existing machinery for law enforcement and public safety.

Building feminism into the internet

Building upon the feminist principles of the internet, the above tools are practical examples of how feminist attitudes towards technology are manifesting themselves online. Tools addressing problems which would otherwise be ignored, or tools putting users back in control of where their data is going, and how it’s being used.
the above tools are practical examples of how feminist attitudes towards technology are manifesting themselves online.
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