Heike Jensen and Sonia Randhawa, APC WRP members participating in a gender team of the OpenNet Initiative in Asia (ONI-Asia), talk about how censorship and gender interrelate. ONI-Asia is part of a larger OpenNet
Initiative, a collaborative
project that aims to investigate, expose and analyse internet
filtering and surveillance practices.
Since 2006, APC WRP has taken a closer look at internet censorship and surveillance practices from a gender perspective in order to develop a gender research framework for examining freedom of expression, security and privacy for ONI project partners in Asia, as well as future research initiatives that are looking into the area of content regulation. As part of this effort, APC WRP has teamed up with the Centre for Independent Journalism in Malaysia and Heike Jensen, APC WRP member and lecturer at the Department of Gender Studies of Humboldt University in Berlin (Germany).
We feel that it is important to look first at how censorship operates on political, economic and social levels to understand different gender impacts. In this video interview by Analia Lavin, Heike Jensen introduces the ONI-Asia gender research framework, and presents some examples of how gender affects censorship issues. She also speaks about the economic side of censorship and how this affects women, noting that the political cost of censorship is frequently the focus in censorship debates, overshadowing other implications.
To prove that a gendered lens could
yield interesting and meaningful results, we looked at the situation in Malaysia, conducting interviews with gatekeepers (those in a position to make decisions about other people's ability to access online content), people from the women's movement and with those affected by censorship decisions; and analysing legislation and policy discourse on internet governance.
One of the key problems that we faced was the unwillingness of gatekeepers to discuss their policies, if and when these existed, and even of people within the women's movement – the latter due to their own assumption that to comment on internet policy and gender, there is a need for 'technical' expertise, even when it was explained that the authors were
interested in looking at how ICTs were having a gendered impact, for
example, in either preventing or facilitating violence against women.
This was one of our clearest findings – the absence of gender at a policy-making level. The Malaysian government has made vocal and strident noises at an international level about overcoming the digital divide. However, it seems to perceive this divide in rural-urban and racial terms, not addressing the gendered nature of the digital divide. The women's movement, and women in general, are absent from policy-making and there is no mention of specifically addressing women's perspectives. This was
true even of policy papers specifically investigating 'the' digital
Privacy was a current issue which illustrated the difference in men's and women's experiences of ICTs. Women's groups are concerned about privacy, particularly, for example, the ability of abusers to track their victims or potential victims through GSM technology, or concerns about the longevity of images online and the use of unauthorised images, either as a form of abuse or a form of coercion. The policy-making focus, in contrast,
focuses on privacy in relation to business. There is a draft Data Protection Bill, but its passage through Parliament is being delayed, apparently due to concerns from the business community. There has been no consultation with the women's movement, or other civil society groups, on the bill, which is currently classified under the Official Secrets Act.
It was not only in these ways that the internet and access had gendered effects. While there have been efforts to patrol sexual content, not limited to pornography, it was acknowledged that even in one of the most policed areas – residential schools – the administration is unable to prevent students (and teachers!) from accessing 'inappropriate' material. In contrast, within the school, the first computer rooms had been built
in the building which housed the boys dormitories, meaning that boys
have easy and convenient access to the facilities. Only when a special building was constructed for a new computer laboratory was this imbalance adjusted, with girls being given privileged access to the new facilities – though, overall, it was still easier for boys to access computer facilities than girls.
While the survey didn't look at how women and girls access the internet at home, or the constraints on this access, it was apparent from concerns that women's groups have articulated that the informal constraints on women's behaviour, through fears of cyber-stalking, harassment or invasions of privacy, are different from those faced by men. Further investigation of these, or an incorporation of these questions into existing research, would
yield interesting and potentially powerful results, results that would give some idea of the extent and nature of the gendered digital divide.