Feminist theory, practices and actions can lead to innovative solutions on internet governance

The first seminar of the preparatory process for the meeting of the Internet Governance Forum was held in Sao Paulo with civil society entities, researchers and government officials to develop proposals for the Forum meeting, to be held November 12-15 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The preparatory seminar was organized by the Research, Study and Learning Center of the Information Network for the Third Sector.

The next seminar will be held in September and will address topics such as “rights and freedom on the internet”, “physical infrastructure, network neutrality and connection costs”, “infrastructure logic” and “privacy”.

During this first event the topics addressed included “possible governance models”, “open patterns” and “access to knowledge”. Discussions around gender were not absent: the panel “Internet governance and issues of gender” was led by gender and ICT expert Magaly Pazello (1), representing the women’s networking support programme of APC and, it is worth noting, the only Brazilian woman who participated in the comprehensive process of the world summit on the information society (WSIS).

Flavia Fascendini: From a gender perspective, what are the primary challenges in terms of access, with an emphasis on infrastructure, in the region of Latin America?

Magaly Pazello: There are several ways into that question, given that the infrastructure has several layers, each with its own regulations and specific challenges. From a gender perspective we can ask how the processes for citizen participation in the elaboration of public policies for full access, and for development strategies in the sector, have been carried out.

A gender perspective allows us to ask about relations of power and how the interests involved impact the lives of people (especially low-income people). Though, mind you, gender is not a synonym for women, during the entire WSIS we kept facing a regression in thinking and language in which gender was indeed reduced to women. This is a discursive move with the intent, and result, of weakening actions for gender equality and women’s rights.

Coming back to the issue of infrastructure, the main challenge is obviously to provide access to all and guarantee that the infrastructure be developed such that it reaches people in all areas, including those that live in isolated areas (islands, rural areas, jungle, towns, desert areas and less privileged urban areas) at an accessible cost. That is the mantra we have been preaching for quite some time now.

Let me tell you about something interesting that happened during the WSIS process. I participated in the meetings organized by Brazil’s telecommunications regulatory agency (ANATEL). In one meeting scheduled as a debate of the proposals put forward by the “construction” sector (as the Telecoms were called) one of the representatives of the private sector, in the middle of the debate, asked the people in the room: “what would this debate about access be like if citizens demanded of Telecoms and the big U.S. corporations, who have the power to establish connection costs, and examination of the entire system using the lens of the strategies and arguments put forward by HIV/AIDS groups to guarantee universal access to treatment and medications?”

The man who put this question on the table did so based on a comparison between the two situations. This is quite interesting for several reasons.

First of all, because the struggle to face HIV/AIDS became a frame of reference for the debate regarding cost/access/citizenship/rights.

Secondly, because there is, in a way, a pattern. That is to say, the poorest countries pay the highest connectivity fees, as happens with medications. The negotiating power of small and isolated countries is completely unequal to that of countries with a strong consumer market. So too, people’s access to the rights and material and immaterial goods in society is unequal.

Thirdly, because if even a high level administrator in a Telecom is capable of asking this question in a public meeting convened by the regulatory agency – emphasizing that this is a value that should inform the entire debate – well there is something interesting there that we should explore more carefully.

What is the understanding of the “gender dimension” that is at work here, in terms of infrastructure as much as access? In the planning of infrastructure there are different levels, from oceanic cables, satellites, to the cooperatives and small and medium-sized businesses that provide internet access services and VOIP. Instead of considering access to be simply a matter of infrastructure I suggest that we focus equally on the different services related to the matter. That is to say, I think I prefer to respond to part of these questions by focusing on services.

Flavia Fascendini: What level of participation have women had in the design of infrastructure and technology? Are there women in this field? In what roles?

Magaly Pazello: I have no idea what the level of participation by women, for example of women engineers in the Telecoms or the technology development firms in the sector. I would have to look at the statistics, and even so, this is another problem because there are not statistics gathered in the field which could provide much information on the topic of women and gender inequality in the sectors related to information technologies, internet Telecoms, etc… Surely there are some good number that begin their studies in this field, few that continue on in the profession, and fewer still who rise to decision-making roles - because this is the situation that we face everyday: widening women’s participation. We know that the number of women in computer science has gone down a few percentage points.

Flavia Fascendini: What needs to be done for women to gain real access to ICTs?

Magaly Pazello: We need to increase the number of young women interested in the sector and guarantee that there is no discrimination based on gender. Guarantee the existence of mechanisms that promote gender equality in the private and public sector so that women can reach the highest positions. Improve the quality of teaching, especially in mathematics, sciences, languages and literature. They need to be capable of both carrying out mathematical operations and dreaming, flying on the wings of the imagination. Understand the technology as part of the everyday, and not as an auratic object. Stimulate best practices through technology with a special focus on non-sexist practices. And keep an eye out for video games that are very violent in terms of gender-based violence and violence towards women and children.

Flavia Fascendini: As far as the Internet Governance Forum to be held in Rio de Janeiro this year, 2007 …

Magaly Pazello: This will be an even more important meeting than the one in Athens. In 2006 the IGF made its debut, which was like a touch-base meeting where the issues that were not resolved at the WSIS were put back on the table.

For Rio de Janeiro there is an attempt to widen the topics of debate as well as to have discussions about establishing accords. It is important to understand what the mandate of the IGF forum is, because it seems that is still a source of confusion and leads to quite different expectations.

Amongst the aspects most important to civil society are the guarantee that the principle of multisectoriality be fully observed and implemented, insuring mechanisms for effective participation by civil society, especially from the economic south, through internet resources as much as face to face meetings.

As far as clashes from the perspective of women and of feminists, we see that the number of conservative actors is on the increase – several coming from fundamentalist Christian sectors – in debates regarding internet governance. Feminist theory, practices and actions in can lead to new perspectives and innovative solutions in the governance field. To do so we would have to establish and create a permanent feminist dialogue forum, studies and proposals regarding the topic of internet governance.

This interest by conservative and fundamentalist sectors is nothing new. A more significant presence by these groups results in the capture of the debate regarding pornography, child pornography, and pedophilia by moralist and controlling positions against rights to information and freedom of expression. By discursively operating “in favour of” the child victims of cybercrimes, in reality they are advocating for an agenda of limiting rights, a strategy that should be monitored and disarmed.

In Brazil now there is a debate regarding proposed legislation that would control all persons access to the internet, be it to access their own email or to navigate to any website. The proposal, according to analysts, does not contain any mention of human rights. Quite to the contrary, it proposes tremendous limitations for internet navigation. It even proposes that each person give personal information before accessing any site, a proposal completely disconnected from reality and the best practices in the field. To restrict all people by assuming that we are all potentially dangerous is not going to “clean” the network of the criminal actions of pedophiles. This is simply one example of the type of discourse that we find when we begin to analyze and understand what forces and interests are at play.

This article is translated from the original version written in Spanish GenderIT.org

(1)She is also a member of g2g – gender and technology.