Where is women's "J" spot? asks Jan Moolman, making a play on the word "G-spot", in reference to Maria Suárez's (Radio FIRE) analysis of why Section J was not a priority issue at the 10-year review of the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing + 10). Moolman, in agreement with Suárez, used the word "ghetto" to emphasise that media issues and ICTs (information and communication technologies) should not be viewed in isolation, nor subjected to the logic of static hierarchies.
On the contrary, the issue of communication and ICTs plays a crucial role in all the critical areas identified by the Beijing Platform for Action. Bridge-building is urgently needed between women's human rights and broader political processes related to the new information and communication technologies, given that these processes pose challenges ranging from economic independence to sexual and reproductive self-determination.
In similar fashion, though the other way round this time, it was essential to "humanise" the process of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) by drawing into the centre of the debate on the digital gap, ICTs and internet governance the consensus, concepts and demands of human rights. These include sexual rights, the right to communicate, to information and knowledge, gender inequality issues and the countless social asymmetries in technological appropriation and development.
These issues, particularly those related to rights and social justice, must be brought out of their "ghettos". They need to be hauled out of the dead-end alleys where they were confined after September 11 (2001) and relocated on major avenues with constant traffic, inter-connection points and passageways. The central importance of ICTs nowadays in nearly everyone's everyday life means that maximum attention must be paid to the processes underway in local and global planning, and their mutual influence on each other. We need to understand the way in which these relations are knitting together the so-called information society.
The project EroTICs:An exploratory research project into sexuality and the internet carried out in five countries - Brazil, Lebanon, South Africa, India and the United States — attempts to fill in the gaps in knowledge about these processes, with particular emphasis on dynamics and identities that have been excluded from the mainstream debate, and to establish the necessary connections for a more comprehensive analysis of ICT and internet practices and policies, many of which are restrictive or contrary to, for example, individual freedoms.
In the last 15 years, a growing wave of alarm about the perils of the internet (such as cybercrime, pornography, paedophilia, frauds and cyberwarfare) has reached all local and global arenas where policy debates on information society is undertaken. Meanwhile, as we know, the internet is a powerful means of communication, information exchange, participation and interaction between persons and groups.
identities, sexual mores and gender representations are deconstructed and recreated through social platforms, as demonstrated in the country studies of the EroTICs project, particularly in South Africa and India. They construct and disseminate alternatives that challenge dominant and normative ideas of gender and sexuality often found in the mass media or among powerful conservative groups and/or governments, thus creating reliable and plural information networks.
Since its inception, the internet has maintained a sense of independence and freedom that has always been defended when under threat (the "Mega Não" movement in Brazil against censorship of the internet is one example). On the other hand, the issue of sex and sexuality - primarily in the form of pornography or paedophilia - are among the arguments most frequently used to justify censorship and control of the internet. They also apparently motivate conservative groups to become seized by moral panics and call for the regulation of the internet for "higher moral standards".
As early as 1998, Castells wrote:
"Indeed, on-line child pornography is a major argument for establishing censorship of the Internet. It is easier to blame the messenger than to question the sources of the message; that is, to ask why our informational society engages in this activity on such a large scale." 1
Since then, reports of child sex abuse have been broadcasted worldwide by the media. At the same time, scandals involving the Catholic Church continue to draw attention. Beginning with Europe and the United States, government action to combat paedophilia have stood as an example and a starting point for the global debate, and for implementing national policies. The issue of paedophilia began to dominate the scene, and police actions came to be seen as an acceptable measure to stamp out abusive practices. Ultimately, the pursuit of combating paedophilia and pornography became a pretext to criminalise sexuality in general.
Brazil was under the spotlight in this debate because of the dispute with Google about the social networking site Orkut. However, the original debate about children and the internet in the country, about 10 years ago, was focused on educational aspects, the inequality of access between social classes, and addiction to electronic games. This debate was sidelined by the alarm over paedophilia, which opened the way to draconian solutions. The same was true in other countries.
The United States government restricted access to reportedly pornographic contents by enacting a law2, of which the language is vague and depends on the interpretation of the person(s) implementing it. Therefore, it encourages the prior censorship of contents about health and sexual and reproductive rights, such as HIV/AidS information. In Germany, a law was passed authorising the use of filters to monitor the contents accessed by users3.
Over more than a decade, the pendulum has swung in both global and local arenas towards increasingly entrenched positions, some of them made so artificially, which create the impression of radicalism and manichaeism (the dualistic battle between good and evil) in terms of monitoring and punishing "bad" internet users. This has served the purposes of various sectors, from the financial system to the culture mega-industry, from authoritarian governments to participative democracies, all defending the false idea that we must choose between rights/freedom and responsibility/protection. In parallel to what happened with the "war on terror" the discourse of the fight against paedophilia has been highly effective in weakening the right to privacy.
According to the Brazil country study, this proves that gender and sexuality are at the heart of policies to regulate the internet — and not only to justify "brilliant" ideas for controlling it, like that of Chief Research and Strategy Officer for Microsoft, Craig Mundie. At the World Economic Forum 2010, he went so far as to propose a licensing system for internet users and a sort of World Health Organisation for the internet4. Such a scheme would end anonymity on the net, making it impossible for young Indian women to use the internet, according to the India country study.
And then, the controversial "triple X" domain has returned to the foreground of the political debate on internet governance5. The idea is to authorise the domain .xxx for contents of a sexual nature, particularly those produced by the pornography industry. The .xxx domain has been proposed, and rejected, three times! It attracted the fury of conservative religious groups in the United States, as well as paradoxical opposition from several producers of pornographic contents. Some religious groups saw it as an opportunity to segregate these contents, while others understood it as a growth strategy for offering sex on the internet, and opposed it. Meanwhile, part of the pornography industry did not want to be confined to the internet's "red-light district" and preferred to keep their business dealings within the .com domain, as they do at present. With all the heat generated by these debates, feminists and LGBTT activists kept their distance...6
The importance of communication and ICTs in a globalised world is measured not only by the volume of financial resources they mobilise, but also, as Maria Suárez said7, by their power to redefine agendas at national and international level, including aspects related to privacy and individual freedoms. I encourage everyone to read the articles produced by the EroTICs project.
Magaly Pazello is a specialist in gender and ICTs with over 15 years working experience in social projects, advocacy and research for national and international NGOs. Her current work focuses on Internet governance debates and their links with gender issues. Magaly has been actively involved in the WSIS process since its inception, as member of DAWN network.
She is also an associate researcher of the EMERGE-Research and Project Center for Communication and Emergence/Fluminense Federal University, and a member of the APC WNSP network. Magaly is a PhD Candidate in Social Studies (Culture and Social Movements) at the University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) with an M.A. in Arts and Literature.