Defining their place: Gender at the Internet Governance Forum 2016

18 January 2017

By Smita

Photograph taken by Smita Vanniyar

The internet has played a huge role in my life. When I first learnt about internet governance, I wanted to know more and more. I was eager to do my bit in making the internet more welcoming for women, queer persons and other minorities. The 11th Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in Guadalajara, Mexico from 6-9 December, 2016, was the first international IGF which I attended. Here is my two paisa on the sessions which I physically or remotely attended and presented at, and how gender and sexuality was spoken about in these.

Whenever and wherever gender is spoken about, it is often seen as a “women’s” issue alone when in fact that isn’t the case at all. The fact that the Dynamic Coalition on Gender and Internet Governance room was overflowing with participants but had less than 10 men in the room at a time is indicative of this. The discussions at this session, including that on the draft sexual harassment policy were essential. An important point raised was the need to address gender as more than just women and men. The Gender Report Card from 2015 indicates an increase in the percentage of female moderators but a decrease in that of female panellists from 2014. Both these were still lower than the percentage of female participants. It will be interesting to see how IGF 2016 has fared.

An important point raised was the need to address gender as more than just women and men. The Gender Report Card from 2015 indicates an increase in the percentage of female moderators but a decrease in that of female panellists from 2014. Both these were still lower than the percentage of female participants.

There were several workshops on gender based online violence, and this means that the issue is being taken seriously and being discussed. Attending the workshop Decrypting Sextortion made me realise why it’s important to insist on a rights based approach. The panellists at this session cited “excessive self disclosure” in online spaces as a major cause for crimes of sextortion. Clearly even in the online space the onus of being safe is on the person affected rather than the perpetrator. As one of the participants, Bishakha Datta rightly pointed out, “excessive self disclosure” is dangerously close to victim blaming.

Another participant from Brazil raised a question on the gendered nature of this particular crime. The panellists and moderators pointed out that it isn’t just women, but men also who are affected by sextortion . This is correct, but it is important to remember the nuances here; it is largely gay men, trans men, young boys etc. who are most affected by sextortion. In case of cisgendered heterosexual men, the cost and frequency of sextortion is different from that of the others, and the degree of vulnerability is much lesser.

The issue of rape videos in India was brought up as an example of non-consensual disclosure being used in sextortion. Panelist Su Sonia Hering spoke about the need to distinguish this from from consensual sexual expression such as sexting, and to be able to discuss the potential negative consequences of it, without collapsing both categories into each other.

Take back the tech and APC-WRP at IGF 2016
Take back the tech and APC-WRP at IGF 2016

The workshop Solutions for countering online abuse of women was more hands on with participants discussing the problems and the potential solutions in smaller groups. Some of the solutions included engaged and continuous community support, more women in the technical arena and in leadership positions, development of safe spaces for sharing knowledge, as well as strategising and training of law enforcement and the judiciary to ensure that reported cases of online harassment are dealt with appropriately. In case of non-consensual sharing of images (revenge porn as it is otherwise referred to as), it was suggested that not just the person uploading the images, but also those who share it should be held accountable.

Some of the solutions proposed to deal with online abuse of women included engaged and continuous community support, more women in the technical arena and in leadership positions, development of safe spaces for sharing knowledge, as well as strategising and training of law enforcement and the judiciary to ensure that reported cases of online harassment are dealt with appropriately.

The Best Practices Forum on Gender and Access looked at the barriers to women’s access to the internet and technology. In the discussion, we looked at the various cultural barriers, which in many ways are more of a hindrance than even infrastructural barriers. What is needed is access that is meaningful, and not simply access in the most technical sense. As Jac sm Kee said, “…if you don’t see the value of accessing the Internet to your lives, then even if you gave out free laptops, et cetera, you are not going to take it on. It’s not going to matter to you.”

The session on Sex and Freedom of Expression online brought sexuality into the conversation at the IGF. The panellists covered a range of topics, from the political aspect of sexuality and sexual rights, how it affects freedom of expression as well as freedom of assembly and association, to the importance of anonymity for the existence of the LGBTQ community especially in countries with anti-queer legislations. The panellists spoke about the role of the internet in providing sexual health education in Nepal, and the use of online harassment to silence women in post-war Sri Lanka; women also used online spaces to organise protests and gatherings to counter violence against women.

The panellists spoke about the role of the internet in providing sexual health education in Nepal, and the use of online harassment to silence women in post-war Sri Lanka; women also used online spaces to organise protests and gatherings to counter violence against women.

These are all big strides in the inclusion of gender and sexuality in internet governance, but one is reminded of how much work remains to be done, especially when its mostly women and other gender/sexual minorities raising these questions of inclusion. And they are doing this using all means possible, like live tweeting sessions with their comments and questions, remote participation, putting up questions on sli.do in the main sessions and using nicknames such as QueerAndHere etc.

But with the discussions at the intersection of gender, sexuality and technology here to stay, I cannot wait to see how they are taken forward at the next IGF.

Screenshot of sli.do discussion highlighting queer presence
Screenshot of sli.do discussion in IGF 2016 highlighting queer presence

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