May 20, 2024

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Opinion: An internet that women want? It looks like this

9 min read

We asked six digital experts and activists from around the world to reflect on this ongoing problem and suggest ways we can create an internet that works better for women: An internet that women want.

The views expressed in this commentary are their own.

‘An internet where there is no fear to express an opinion or publish photos of our bodies’

Opinion by Angie Contreras

Angie Contreras is a consultant in communication issues with a gender perspective, technology and digital rights. She is a member of the Civil Association “Cultivando Género” based in Aguascalientes, Mexico, where she works on issues of harassment and digital violence in childhood and teenagers.
When the internet first emerged, we saw in this tool the opportunity for women to have a space to exercise their rights. Now, we find a space where violence and gender stereotypes are reproduced, barriers to accessing technology have increased, and a lack of digital skills reduces the opportunities women have worldwide.
In 2020, a report from the World Wide Web Foundation found that women continue to face multiple barriers to using the internet and fully participating online. One reason for this is because being a girl, teenager, woman, trans or non-binary person makes us victims of digital violence. Throughout our region, deceiving young girls to gain their trust (grooming), is one of the main forms of digital violence a girl can face.
When I visit schools as part of our digital violence prevention campaign, girls often ask me: “Why do they say it is dangerous for girls to be on the internet?” I would like to be able to answer that this is a lie, and tell them they are free on the internet, and that they will be safe. But this is not the reality we are in.

So, how do we build an internet for young girls, women and trans women?

First, we need to listen to them, and create an internet where their voices and needs are reflected. Second, we need an internet for them to enjoy and have fun, but also study anything they want. And third, we need a world where companies, internet providers and governments take a position against digital violence and carry out concrete actions for prevention, accompaniment and to reduce impunity.

An internet women want is one where there is no fear to comment, to express an opinion, or publish photos of our bodies — and where there are no limits simply because you are a woman on the internet.

‘A feminist internet would help women and gender-queer folk find strength online, as they do together offline’

Opinion by Damini Satija

Damini Satija is head of the global Algorithmic Accountability Lab, based out of its New York office, and a Deputy Director at Amnesty Tech.

Our online lives are increasingly governed by algorithms. These technologies not only shape our lives, but they replicate the darkest side of a patriarchal world online by saturating the internet with the same discrimination and structural inequities that define society today.

An algorithm can extend the same verbal and physical threat women, trans and non-binary individuals face walking on the streets by amplifying online hate speech. Social media algorithms choose to surface ads to women and young girls on weight-loss, skin lightening creams and diets, mirroring the objectification of our bodies and racialized beauty standards rampant in everyday life.
Algorithms take a societal disdain for outspoken feminist voices and entrench this on the internet by suppressing the reach of their content.

A feminist internet would subvert, dismantle and reimagine patriarchal structures, not reproduce them at an accelerated rate. The building blocks for this internet will be technologies that foster the same strength and resistance that women and gender-queer people find with each other in offline communities.

This internet will also recognize that women around the world are not a monolith — and that womanhood too is layered in power imbalances which have historically privileged women of certain races, geographies, abilities, sexual identities and class backgrounds.

This internet will go far beyond definitions of womanhood and gender confined to our bodies, biological sex and physicality. Ultimately, an internet for all women will grow and nurture our spaces of solidarity.

Logo Systems Error

‘An internet that women want holds platforms and algorithms to account’

Opinion by Anushka Jain

Anushka Jain is a lawyer and policy counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation.
In India, the horrific “Sulli Deals” incident from 2021 brought to light the online harassment of Muslim women in the country. The case involved dozens of Muslim women who had their publicly available pictures and names listed on the “Sulli Deals” app and website — where they were ‘auctioned’ off to bidders.
“Sulli” is a derogatory slang term for Muslim women, and the fake auction was a cruel form of digital degradation. Arrests were made more than 5 months after the first incident, and the accused were later granted bail.

These Muslim women, including journalists, activists and analysts, were targeted because of their religion, views and professions.

When imagining how to rebuild the internet in a way that is safe and accessible for women, we need to assess the sources of harm that women face online.

This means acknowledging the fact that the internet is rooted in structures and systems of power, such as patriarchy, racism, colonialism, authoritarianism, ethno-religious nationalism, and business models based on neoliberal capitalism. All of which converge to result in the hate and vitriol that is peddled against women on the internet.

In addition to their gender, women inhabit other identities through their religion, profession, race, physical disabilities or sexuality, which further contributes to the harassment they face online.

To build an internet that women want, we need to break away from these systems of power. That means pursuing algorithmic accountability and holding intermediary platforms to account; keeping in mind the intersectional identities; as well as other feminist principles of the internet, such as meaningful and equal access, and safety from online harassment and technology related violence.

‘The internet is a crucial space for women to build international solidarity’

Opinion by Azadeh Akbari

Azadeh Akbari is Assistant Professor in public administration and digital transformation at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

With an 18-year-old’s enthusiasm, I registered my first email address in 2001 at an internet cafe in Tehran. What was then too expensive for a working-class family to afford has become essential to how women connect, build businesses, resist, define their identities, and discuss some of the most taboo issues in Iranian society.

In the 2000s, Iranian female bloggers broke their silence about unjust laws, sexuality, bodily pleasures and unwelcome relationships in a strict religious system. With the growth of social media platforms, women built online businesses and found their footing in a male-dominated economy. Activists started educational projects and awareness-raising campaigns targeting unspoken subjects such as the female body, domestic violence, violence in the workplace, LGBTQ+ issues, and sexual harassment in public spaces.
The “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign encouraged women to resist the compulsory hijab by sharing videos of strolling the streets without the government-imposed head covering. As the international #MeToo movement grew, women challenged the Iranian honour culture to raise their voices. However, hardly any man has been trailed for their wrongdoing.
Iran might seem to be an extreme case of how the internet changes lives, but it shows how an internet for women is not just about gender-specific products or services, achieving gender sensitivity and safe space in social media, or female presence in regulatory bodies. The internet is more than a tool, network, or platform. Women stood together internationally when Iranian women cut their hair, showing how the internet politicises women, sparks debates and builds international solidarity.

Authoritarian regimes have long tried to break such networks through censorship, blocking, internet shutdowns and nationalisation of internet infrastructure. Women, above anything, need secure access to the free and global internet; otherwise, their voices will get lost in the digital chambers of oppression.

‘An internet women want is free from digital colonization’

Opinion by Timnit Gebru

Timnit Gebru is the founder and executive director of the Distributed AI Research Institute.
I was born and raised in Ethiopia and I’m of Eritrean descent, a country that has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world, and has been called the North Korea of Africa due to the brutally tight grip of the government.
My friends in Tigray just went through one of the longest internet shutdowns in history, with women there subjected to rape as a weapon of war, and seeing denials of these atrocities on the internet.
Products that might work for people in languages like English — like Facebook — are the equivalent of 4chan (a message board known as a safe haven for hate) in my mother tongue, Tigrinya. This results in what my friend, Moroccan computer scientist El Mahdi El Mhambi calls “digital apartheid”.
There is currently a $1.6billion lawsuit against Facebook by two plaintiffs including Abraham Meareg, the son of Tigrayan university professor Meareg Amare, whose killing was fueled by calls to murder him on the platform. (The first hearing in the case against Facebook’s parent company Meta was reportedly due to take place this month. CNN reached out to Meta for comment but did not receive a response at time of publishing).
The internet I want is one that people can access without being subjected to the cesspool of harassment, stalking and threats that I and many other women receive, but also one where they can opt out of being online if they want to.

I’d like to have an internet where I can easily communicate in any of the languages that I want to use, whether it is Tigrinya, Amharic, or English, and access information that is relevant to my community without digital colonization.

This can only be done if we prioritize the needs of people who are completely ignored, like those who live in the countries that social media corporations don’t feel accountable to, and work towards a pluralistic vision of our tech futures — rather than one controlled by a handful of corporations located in Silicon Valley.

‘An internet women want is (first and foremost) affordable’

Opinion by Nnenna Nwakanma

Nnenna Nwakanma is a board member at the International Digital Health and AI Research Collaborative (I-DAIR).

I strongly believe that building an internet will never be about technology alone. No matter how sophisticated the tool may be, no matter how “futuristic” it may sound, it will still be centered on human needs, human desires and human ambitions.

Therefore, an internet that women want — and that works for women — needs to start by being affordable for women. It also needs to stand up against all forms of online gender-based violence, and ingrained into it must also be complete respect for human rights.

As an African woman, I need my voice to be heard. I need to challenge patriarchy. But I live in the under-served, minimally connected, digitally illiterate and gender-insensitive part of the world. My village in the eastern part of Nigeria is only 20 minutes away by car from the city of Aba. Yet, I have neither electricity nor 4G coverage.

I want to count, to contribute and to influence. I want to retain my identity while being a global digital citizen. I need to be free. But I am not able to do this from my village. I must ‘migrate’ to the city. Even when I have broken the barriers of electricity, rurality, availability, and digital illiteracy, I then have to grapple with online gender-based violence.

In building an internet that women want, we need to respond to the fundamental needs of women: safety, security, respect of privacy, social justice and equality of opportunities.

In other words, leave no one behind.

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