Feminist reflection on internet policies

Changing the way you see ICT

Let's talk about gender analysis in the LAC IGF

Flavia Fascendini
Flavia Fascendini on 10 September, 2013
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Flavia is the Spanish language editor of GenderIT.org.
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The APC Women’s Rights Programme attended the preparatory meeting prior to the Latin American Internet Governance Forum held in late August in Córdoba, Argentina. Attending were Erika Smith, Dafne Sabanes Plou, and Flavia Fascendini. The Spanish language editor of GenderIT.org interviewed both feminists to analyse whether the internet governance debate still marginalises gender issues, or if they have truly become cross-cutting.

Flavia Fascendini: We have a contrast, because one of you was attending a regional Internet Governance Forum for the first time, and one of you is more experienced and has been to several…

Erika Smith: Yes, this was my first time at an Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and though I see the value of not issuing resolutions so as to enrich discussion and do networking more openly, it is interesting that other regions do issue them. So, how can we ensure that the lessons from the regions really permeate the global forum? I was surprised by the diversity of civil society organisations and the level of analysis from many of them, but I was disappointed by the lack of government presence, for example. I saw both some very sophisticated analyses as well as people (who I assume were there for the first time, like me) without as much analysis and/or experience who were demanding that the IGF issue resolutions, which it cannot. There was, however, space both for first-timers and people with more experience. It gave me an opportunity to connect with experts on the subject in Mexico, both from civil society and government, and there was also a rich representation from Central America. Regarding gender, I do have some comments. I was a little disappointed with the level of some of the debates. I went in search of solutions to the violence that women are facing on the internet, and I realised that the answers are as complex as the questions.

Dafne Sabanes Plou: Those are the dynamics of the IGF. It is about coming to consensus and not about making recommendations. That led to very heated discussions in previous IGFs. I think now people are used to it being like that. I think the interesting thing about these processes is that you can reach a consensus between organisations, especially considering that most of the participants of this Latin American IGF belonged to civil society. The small government presence was because this time they decided on a strategy of being represented by two governments in Latin America. For this meeting Brazil and Argentina were appointed. We did not expect anyone else because that was the decision.

On the other hand, companies were also not well represented. We had three companies that were represented, Google, Yahoo and Telefónica, and even so we realised that there was a strong reaction to the presence of Telefónica.

The Latin American IGF was dominated by civil society, but we noted in reading the reports of the African IGF that it was dominated by governments. I think that as civil society it is important that we agree to increase our lobbying at national and regional levels. Or, if we go to the global IGF, to see what influence we can have there through panels and plenaries. I think that on some topics some interesting consensuses were reached, but there were others where the vacuum of proposals was noticeable.

FF: What was your take on the gender representation on the panels, moderation, attendance, etc?

Dafne: I found it interesting that as time passes more women are participating, and I would say that the number of women was about 30%, of an average age of around 40. It is rare to see older women participating and, in general, most of them come from the area of ICT rights, civil rights, and some technical spaces such as free software and the technical community as represented by the Latin American and Caribbean Network Information Centre (LACNIC) in the region.

From the women’s movement, there were only a handful. They were a tiny fraction. The majority were women working on the issues of digital rights, ICT rights, or civil rights, such as the right of access to information and the like. There was also participation from women academics and women with NGOs who have been dedicated to the IGF from the start. The spectrum is narrow and we can say that it covers the technical field. The area of rights and the women’s movement has a low profile and is learning, because it only recently got involved.

As to the panels and the moderation, I think there was an imbalance. There should have been more adjustments for gender parity. But at the last minute the event organisers found that people they had counted on had not come, or had withdrawn, so that might have caused a gender imbalance, especially on the first panel, which was noticeably male dominated. They then sought to have balance, even in the leadership of the groups. I believe that even so the issues of internet governance are issues which, still, women are not as involved in as such. An exception are those women involved in ICT rights, and now those who are coming in through movements like Creative Commons, Wikimedia, and free software. There we could see that there was a presence of women with contributions and interesting feminist analyses. But in ICT rights I did not see much of a gender perspective. The LAC IGF is clear that there must be balance.

Erika: Yes, there was participation by women in general, which is very gratifying, and there are women with some truly impressive analyses involved in rights issues, free software, and surveillance, and that does have to do with governance – but they did not necessarily participate with the gender or feminist analysis which we would hope to have. Having women does not guarantee this sort of analysis. What made me happy was that there were more feminists there, not only from the APC Women’s Programme, but also feminists from Central America, specifically Guatemala, and also a compañero (fellow-activist) from El Salvador with the Feminist Collective, men and women who work specifically for the rights of women, and we saw it clearly with the FRIDA award winners. Having the FRIDA award winners greatly enriched the event, but we also saw that with the compañeras from Colombia, and the compañeras from Paraguay.

Dafne: But I think there was no gender analysis. There was participation of feminists, who perhaps made their group contribution, or perhaps took the issues to their groups, but I don’t think you can go from that to saying that there was an analysis of gender in the conference.

Erika: APC is one of the organisers and we know that there is an awareness of the need for gender balance on the panels, which failed on the first panel. That was checked and changed in successive panels, but it is important, and there are many notable women who could have been there. But facilitation in general was taken into account, and we saw a good deal of participation from women in the overall event, as well as in the comments via Twitter. I think there were more feminists than ever, though I was not in Colombia so I might be wrong. But the forum did not necessarily manage a gender analysis, which is not so easy, particularly when we are talking about these macro issues.

Dafne: What I saw really is that this time progress was made in some discussions and people actually managed to say a few things that were stronger and more interesting and pointed to some possible policies to follow, for example, on security and privacy, which was discussed on the panel I got to moderate. There was very good participation in the subsequent discussions, which expressed unanimous condemnations of surveillance systems, and the recently reported communications interceptions by US information services, for example. In the panel on principles (of internet governance), nobody thought they were going to develop consensus principles, but there was a series of important consensuses there as well. So I think some of the issues actually worked and progress was made on issues such as respect for freedom of expression on the internet, the observance of human rights on the network, and everything related to the free flow of information. I think as a framework for discussing these issues, the presentation on the first day by Frank La Rue, the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, was crucial.

Erika: Yes, there was questioning of the infrastructure itself and its dependence on the US, outrage over surveillance by the US, but also a strong questioning of local governments and their lack of transparency and our lack of knowledge of their practices. For example, FinFisher, very expensive and sophisticated spyware, is being used by Mexico and other countries, in the name of “national security” but actually to spy on human rights defenders and journalists. We saw trends of reactionary proposals from lawmakers and citizens, in theory to curb organised crime and issues of child pornography and trafficking – certainly serious problems – but with proposals that violate basic rights such as freedom of expression and privacy.

Dafne: Another thing I want to emphasise is the amount of people who followed the debates remotely. I think that’s an important effort, although perhaps not many made interventions, but every so often questions were presented that were generated through this remote participation. I think that’s something we should applaud and recommend for future forums, because it is an effort that has been really important so that those who can not afford the travel costs, have no scholarships, or who could not attend for work related reasons, can still participate.

FF: How visible would you say that gender was in the agenda of this LAC IGF?

Dafne: Gender was considered a cross-cutting theme in the program.

FF: But it appears that having gender as a cross-cutting theme does not work that well…

Dafne: It was hoped that panelists would include the issue across the sessions. But for that to work there must some sort of parity in the participation of the panelists, the moderators, the group facilitators, etc, as well as a gender analysis.

Erika: It is very difficult for me because, for example, telling presenters, who come passionate about their topic and have little time to present it, that they also have to add a gender analysis when they do not even know how to do that, is difficult. I liked the brainstorming sessions, I liked that model. At the same time, if we separate gender and a gender analysis from everything else that is going on, and put it in another group, nobody is going to go because we also want to be in these other spaces at the same time. It is always a conflict. That is why gender has to be a cross-cutting issue, but more support is needed to make this happen. We have to ensure that there are some gender specialists. We were there but we could not always comment because of the length of the debate in the plenary rather than in groups. Now, for example, Dafne offered a gender analysis of the issue of broadband, and we had someone from the panel asking if a poor woman is really interested in Facebook. Well, yes, and that is her right.

There will always be critiques of what is most important in a revolution, but you have to go all in with everything. You can not say this first, and then later we will see about equal rights. Maybe she is developing her micro business for fixing machines. We do not know. Or maybe she is in resale, like the information operators in Bangladesh, who resell information that they can get through their connection, which they pay for by passing data and agricultural or health information to their compañeras. The point is for them to have access so that they can explore and make these innovations.

It is always going to be a challenge and there are always different ways of seeing it, but gender has to be a cross-cutting theme, and we have to think about how to make it easier for people to do this analysis. But on the other hand it is sometimes worth having a specific discussion space, but not instead of, or at the same time as, other sessions. Because this implies that I am not talking about gender in the session on privacy and security. And if I want to talk about online surveillance and espionage, well let’s talk about how poor women are watched by their husbands, their governments. They know in their bones what surveillance is – and indigenous women or women of African descent in many countries know it all the more. Ask the compañeras from the US who are under camera surveillance at all times, “suspected” of stealing simply for being a woman of African descent in a store.

Dafne: We must bear in mind that the topics are chosen according to what participants propose and people’s responses to the prior survey of all those interested in this conference. It is on the basis of these results that the theme of the IGF is chosen, and it is the organising committee that settles on the main issues.

Erika: It seems to me that we are very clear about this in very specific areas, which can be human rights, access, censorship, or privacy, but it begins to get muddier with technical issues of governance, or with these terms that are imposed by the process of the World Summit on the Information Society and then the Governance Forum, such as multisectoralism or enhanced cooperation.

FF: What suggestions or ideas do you have with respect to increasing the visibility of women and the integration of gender issues in the LAC IGF? For example it occurs to me, why not take the gender report cards initiative to the regional forums?

Dafne: That is an interesting idea Flavia, we could think about also taking them to regional IGFs. Maybe that could be a good recommendation. On the other hand, I think that as members of the women’s movement we have a lot left to do to bring the issue to the deeper discussions that happen within this movement. A lot of compañeras still consider information and communication technologies to be simply tools. They do not see their political importance in activism, or the economy, they only maybe are just beginning to see their relevance in communications policy. So to talk about women’s rights on the internet requires a new vision of technological tools and virtual spaces. Strengthening women’s rights and activism on the internet and on social networks requires expanding our perspective and the scope of our actions that can be repeated and perpetuated in cyberspace. This gives a whole new dimension to women’s political participation, and we need to do this analysis with more gender awareness.

Erika: I think so. What I loved was the enrichment from the local perspective, for example the matter of laws and how they are being distorted to attack human rights. With this type of local analysis we can manage to understand the implications for citizenship and if there is a differential impact on women – and it also gives rise to local feminist action, whereas macro decisions seem to make gender invisible.

I found the highlighting of the “necessary and proportionate” principle – on the application of human rights to the monitoring of communications – to be very important. I think it is clear that we must continue to push it in the region, do more analysis, and also take advantage of the tool ourselves. These principles seem excellent to me, and with the Women’s Programme I have been incorporating them in the workshops that I have here in Mexico since we heard of the launch of the campaign.

The positioning and presence of the user community in this event, which we heard particularly affirmed by people from the Caribbean, was extremely rich and provocative. When we position ourselves as users it offers us yet another perspective. And their analysis, coming from the Caribbean, would not have been possible for many people to appreciate had there not been interpretation at the conference – but it did came forward on several occasions. I think it is a space where they continue to be quite marginalised because they are so small. But there are many lessons to learn.

The other aspect that I loved is that you can see that the forums energise analysis and participation in different countries. There was excellent participation from Colombia and from Brazil, and here you see the legacy of the previous forums. Having the support of that analysis and local interest lets you connect all the issues more carefully and you see much more enthusiasm. It is no accident that the forums have been successful in countries where there are also many laws that are very controversial.

FF: Thank you both for your thoughts.

 

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