Who governs the internet? If I had been asked this a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t be sure how to respond. Is it up to the state?

I know that governments can exercise control with an iron fist, not only states notorious for censorship such as China and Iran, but also when Egypt shut down the internet during the peaceful protests in January, or when Pakistan temporarily blocked Facebook over the cartoon row in 2009.

Maybe it is the private sector who is in charge: I mean, Facebook seems to be able to define what is obscene or not, like blocking images of breastfeeding.

But is it possible that we, the people, can govern the internet? Not only can hackers use their technical knowledge to support civil rights, haven’t massive online petitions helped to bring about real change? Haven’t document-leaking sites changed the face of journalism and incurred huge threats to their very existence?

Road makers in internet governance

Before the 1990s, the internet seems to have been largely of concern to scientists; indeed, the world wide web was created as part of a project for the European Organization for Nuclear Research. While it was designed to be freely accessible to the public, in practice several large corporations (and many smaller companies) provide architecture that make up the internet, and anyone who wants to access the internet must ultimately work with an internet service provider (ISP).

Private corporations were largely

given control of the internet's technical infrastructure until 1998 when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was created. All technical and policy aspects of the underlying core infrastructure of the internet are administered by ICANN, the structure of which follows a “multi-stakeholder model”, bringing together government, businesses, the technical community, regulatory bodies, and civil society, including through a group of “internet users at large”.

After the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) conferences convened by the United Nations in 2003 and 2005, all stakeholders can now come together to discuss and debate policy in annual, international meetings of the Internet Governance Forum, as well as regional IGFs and processes which go on throughout the year. The accreditation process is remarkably easier for individuals and small civil society organisations than for attending other UN conferences, and active participation at the IGF is encouraged, in person and through remote participation.

Internet governance (IG) is a complex and multi-layered process, which brings together regulatory bodies, private interests, government interests, and a critical mass of civil society members.

In practice, of course, the power structures of money, politics, voice, and technical know-how play as much a role in the IG arena as they do in any other space. So, while the IGF is not mandated to make decisions, key policy issues and technical developments are raised and debated and theoretically, anyone can participate.

So what does all this mean for women and gender issues?

I have been interested in the intersections between women’s rights activism and information communication technologies (ICTs) since making a digital version of a full-size exhibition on “dress codes and modes" for the the Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) network.

I learned more about strategies and techniques around ICTs at the first Feminist Tech Exchange training workshop in 2008, where I was encouraged to consider and discuss challenging questions, like “if your photo has been circulated without your consent, have you been trafficked?”, “why are some campaign videos more effective and persuasive than others?”, and “what are the relationships between open source software and feminist principles?”.

Over the past few years I have considered women’s rights issues in terms of ICTs, for example when activist Ghada Jamsheer had reportedly been threatened, was under surveillance by state forces through her mobile phone and email, and was banned from speaking to the media in Bahrain. Despite this, she was able to speak out and alert the international community through the internet.

It was also the internet that first alerted my colleagues and I – and the whole world – about the extra-judicial stoning to death of a teenager in Iraq in 2007, a crime which would have gone unknown had it not been filmed on a mobile phone and uploaded to the internet.

Does documenting violence create more violence?

Although I support Take Back the Tech's ‘I don’t forward violence’ campaign, which urges people not to forward violent or humiliating content of others, I thought of Du’a Khalil Aswad’s case. The forwarding of images of her stoning – a brutal and lethal violent act – helped document and report a case of gender-based murder that would otherwise not be known, and led to the arrest of four men associated with the killing as well as raising awareness of the issues of culture, violence and the control of women’s bodies. However, it has also been linked to a retaliatory attack against a Yazidi community – the community of which Du’a was a part – two weeks after the murder. It raises a number of ethical questions for me, but no easy answers: can cases of violence be shared in such a way that it is not exploitative? Can my good intentions fuel someone else’s biases and harmful motivations?

Strategic and secure online communciations for women´s rights

I began thinking more rigorously about the connections, not only between violations of women’s rights and ICTs, but also how women can reclaim and reassert their rights by using ICTs including the internet. The Violence is Not Our Culture (VNC) campaign of WLUML partnered with APC’s Women Networking and Support Programme (APC WNSP) in 2010 to organise two regional trainings on ‘Strategic E-Campaigning’ for VNC campaigners, who work on a wide range of initiatives against violence against women that is justified in the name of culture, tradition and religion (CVAW).

These brought together dozens of women human rights defenders from across Asia and Africa for intensive trainings in communications strategy development, including online and offline components, technical aspects of using various online technologies, and how to align a communications strategy with the overall goals of one’s campaign.

These trainings opened my eyes to the internet as a public space in which women must engage, and engage as critically, loudly, safely and strategically, as they engage in other public spaces, from the streets to halls of education, from the mainstream media to the international human rights systems.

They not only led to joint messages from the Violence is Not Our Culture and Take Back the Tech campaigns during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence in 2010, but also 8 projects of VNC campaign partners were developed and implemented using ICTs in creative and strategic ways to confront CVAW. Impressively, all projects were implemented within a six-month period with budgets under 5000 Euros.

The examples of VNC partners using ICTs in their advocacy were numerous and inspiring: from training schoolchildren in Senegal on how to use the internet to claim their rights against female genital mutilation, to launching an inter-university video competition around culture and violence against women; from working with journalists to create cartoons around sexual harassment in Sudan, to introducing online petitions into existing campaign work against domestic violence in Pakistan. But how to do this safely?

In 2011, partners of WLUML and the VNC campaign participated in APC WNSP's two regional training workshops on online security, further making the links between technical knowledge, issues of security faced by women human rights defenders and effective advocacy. (link to the edition)

Making connections: gender and internet governance

I had just started to feel I had a grip on how women can be violated on the internet, how they can reclaim these spaces for their own campaigns, and why security of data and personhood is just as important online as in the physical world. Now I have to learn about gender and the world of internet governance too?? Sheesh.

The participants at the two-day workshop “Women’s Rights and Internet Governance” convened by the APC WNSP prior to the 6th Annual Internet Governance Forum, were all defenders of women’s rights, human rights, and communication rights, though working in very different contexts and with different emphases. Some straddled the women’s and communications rights movements, others had less experience in communications activism.

Those with expertise in the field of progressive communications spoke to the cultural barrier that many women have with engaging with these spaces, perhaps because of a resistance to technical jargon, a historical bias against women in the fields of science and engineering, or an unspoken suspicion that the technology of the internet is probably best left to those who understand and are passionate about it. And really, why should we as women human rights defenders care about technology and online communications; isn’t it elitist and removed from “the people”? Can’t we just focus on learning to use the tools for our own advantage?

No! As I learned during a fascinating week in the workshop on women’s rights and internet governance, and the IGF itself, there are critical connections between the operations of the internet and the work to promote women’s human rights.

Some of the connections I have been reflecting on are as follows:

  • The internet is a quickly-evolving and politically-charged entity, in which civil society has a legitimate space to be involved by contributing to debates, setting standards, and influencing decisions that relate to issues of human rights (which includes human rights as claimed or denied on the internet). Just like the streets, the newspapers, the schools, and the government, the internet is a public space that we can, and should be, involved in -not only as providers of content, but having a say in the mechanisms that shape what can be said, how, and by whom. Are women present in the decision-making arenas, and if they are, are issues of women’s rights and a gender analysis being put forward in spaces that can make a difference?

  • Much work of human rights defenders is concerned with freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and issues of security. Likewise, debates around “internet rights” (and “communications rights”) also incorporate these issues.

    • What are the limits to freedom of expression? If child pornography is “bad” and expression of sexual orientation is “good”, how does this translate into policy decisions, especially when governments, businesses, communities and individuals all have a stake in these decisions and their repercussions. APC has commenced ground-breaking research around questioning the concept of “harmful content” in relation to sexuality, censorship, and the rights of women and girls.

    • If there are no barriers to freedom of speech, should hate speech be allowed, and who defines what that is? Many websites and social networking groups would not allow many incitements to violence including those based on racisms and xenophobia, but why do concerned citizens have to launch a petition to ask Facebook to remove pages that openly promote sexual violence (and which violate Facebook's own terms of service)?

    • Martin Scheinin, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, argued in his 2010 report to the UN Human Rights Council that “The current wave of privacy-intrusive measures in the name of countering terrorism should be countered through a global declaration on data protection and data privacy,” as he focused on the erosion of the right to privacy in the fight against terrorism. How does one find the balance between wanting to end organised crime and terrorism (i.e., national security) and the human right to privacy (i.e., individual security)?

All rights that women’s rights activists discuss are concurrently being played out on the internet: accessibility for differently-abled people; opening up information on sexual rights; barriers to participation by poor, marginalised and/or minority communities; and the ability of citizens in different contexts to exercise their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights - both in online AND offline spaces. I found it helpful through the workshop’s discussions to think of violence against women being on a continuum of violence: there are relationships between violence that happens online, and that which happens offline.

I learned a tremendous amount between 24 and 30 September this year, between the workshop on women’s rights and internet governance, APC’s event on “Internet Rights are Human Rights”, and the Internet Governance Forum. One of the main thoughts I will take away with me, amongst the many questions I am now considering, is: how can the transnational women’s movement continue its ongoing efforts to be less reactive, and more proactive?

When I learned of steps some governments were taking to curb freedom of expression, increase surveillance, and define arbitrarily what is “obscene” or “offensive” content, I thought to myself: “this sounds like a case that we would receive after the violation had already happened, once someone’s Facebook account was blocked by the service provider, or their email hacked by their government, or the threats they had received online had materialised into an attack against their person.’”

Now I’m thinking, how can we keep abreast of the debates, developments and technological tools to keep promoting women’s individual and collective rights, when the lines between online and offline spaces are increasingly blurry. Investing in understanding how the internet is governed, just as the women’s movement has invested in understanding and participating in how communities, countries and international systems are governed, may be a fruitful – and fun – endeavour.

Aisha Lee Shaheed

October 2011

Aisha Lee Shaheed has a background in history and communications, and works on issues of women’s human rights and social justice. Since 2007, she has been involved with the Violence is Not Our Culture Campaign. From Canada and Pakistan, she currently resides in the UK.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <br><p>