This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, From Disruption to Transformation? Linking Technology and Human Rights for Sustainable Development, launched to coincide with the 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this series, experts from academia, think tanks and civil society engage with the topic of linking technology and human rights, and share their experience at the front lines of policy-driven research and advocacy aimed at leaving no one behind in an increasingly digital, automated world.
In today’s increasingly digital, networked society, there is a pressing need for a feminist interrogation of the melding of new technology with personal, social, cultural, economic and political life, and the power structures that are reproduced and redefined in the process. In particular, this Think Piece points a critical lens at questions of autonomy on the internet and in an age of big data, asking how these technologies can empower women and queer persons to fully exercise and enjoy their rights, both on- and offline.
Jac sm Kee
is a feminist activist, writer and researcher from Malaysia. She leads the Women’s Rights Programme at the Association for Progressive Communications, which works to prevent online violence against women, encourages web-based gender research and facilitates network and movement building on feminism and technology.
Towards a feminist internet?
We are living in an increasingly digital and networked age, where the relationship between feminism, technology and transformation
does not receive adequate attention in our discussions of the future of human rights. When we speak of the internet, there is particular need for feminist engagement in a system where programmers have as much of a role as policy makers in addressing and preventing gender-based discrimination and where masculine bias is hidden under the language of technical neutrality.
Indeed, the online is always located within offline realities, and both reflect and impact on each other. From violence, to the shaping of culture, to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and public participation, offline exclusion and marginalization reinforce and are reinforced by their digital parallels. And the melding of digital and network technologies with personal, social, cultural, economic and political life will only increase as technologies advance. It is therefore essential to incorporate gendered realities and experiences into the analysis of the new challenges and understandings of human rights in a digital age.
What does a feminist internet look like? And how can it empower women and queer persons to fully exercise and enjoy their rights, on- and offline? The answers to these questions vary across the different dimensions of our digital lives and experiences, though at their core they are framed by a feminist interrogation of power structures, which intersect traditional and digital spheres. As such, the aim of this think piece is to explore some of these intersections, and to point to critical areas for feminist analysis of digital and networked technologies.
Digital decision making as subjects, not objects
Achieving a feminist internet will require a critical interrogation of power across a range of dimensions, one of which being the question of autonomy in the digital realm, and what is required for decision making by subjects, rather than as objects of someone else’s decision and control. The right to privacy has been central to this discussion in relation to the internet. Since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the US government’s broad‐based monitoring, collection and analysis of internet and telecommunications traffic in 2013, the topic of mass surveillance has been widely debated and critiqued by journalists, public officials, activists and others. What is less visible in these conversations is the intersectionality of gender, sexuality, race and other identity markers in the historical practice of surveillance of some bodies, and how this affects the impact of this practice in the context of new technology.
Black feminists have highlighted the culture of surveillance that has always been part and parcel of black bodies—who are simultaneously over-exposed, but unseen
—where counter strategies such as sousveillance (turning the gaze back at the power that surveils) become ineffective as it falls within existing discriminatory structures
that do not provide justice. Sex workers, for example, have critiqued the range of safety technology tools as being designed with cisgendered (white) men in mind
, and futile for the defense of their very real and urgent need for privacy in their day-to-day life and work.
Social surveillance has always been the experience of women, in particular young women, where their movements, behaviour, expression, bodies and relationships are regulated under the watchful eyes
of parents, partners and their communities, especially (and including) their use of social media and digital communications technologies. This happens under the same broad paradigm of safety and security as the arguments forwarded by proponents of mass surveillance.
How can we gain a deeper understanding of the complex dimensions of privacy, surveillance and technology when we infuse this with a key feminist concern of being able to choose when to be visible, and when beginning with bodies that have been historically surveilled? What new insights can we gain by bringing in decades of feminist critique and analysis around private and public domains, and in particular, the relationship between consent, embodiment, privacy and dignity? With that, how can we strengthen the right to privacy at all levels—from research, to technology use and design, to communications culture, to policy frameworks? And how can work on addressing gender-based violence that is increasingly intersected by technology-enabled violations of privacy be strengthened?
Autonomy in the data age
Another emerging facet of the conversation on autonomy is algorithmic or machine-driven decision making. Increasingly, our every interaction—from the very intimate work of forging relationships to the everyday action of moving around a city or the very public act of casting our vote—is being collected, stored, aggregated and computed
to create a personification of who we are as a data set. These data sets are progressively being used as the basis for decision making in an ever wider range of areas, from tailor-made advertising and delivery of content, to design of initiatives for the advancement of economic, social and cultural rights, to visa applications and parole decisions.
The compulsion for data-driven—and increasingly automated—decision making has many dimensions which bring with them questions that require critical feminist interrogation
. Among them, systemic bias
that gets built into data collection and algorithms that reproduce and amplify discrimination and exclusion, the challenge of investigating
this, and the issue of governance and accountability when a large proportion of data sets are private property of multinational corporations. How do we develop data policies and practices that are grounded by principles of autonomy, consent, bodily integrity and dignity?
If we aspire to create a feminist internet that can serve as a continuum of resistance to patriarchy across all spaces, public and private, digital and physical, autonomy is just one of many key areas for interrogation and engagement, as set out in the Feminist Principles of the Internet
. Across all these areas, it is essential to recognize that the impacts of technology on society are located within the existing—and changing—power structures and inequalities that shape our social, cultural, economic and political lives.