What is Internet Governance? And why does it matter for women’s rights?

Marieta Dimova
Posted December 28, 2009 from Bulgaria

Women’s rights advocates have made policy-setting inroads into many spaces that affect women’s lives – governments, schools, religious organizations, health care systems and economies. But what about the virtual space of the internet? The recent Internet Governance Forum provided opportunities to critique, expand and transform the dialogue around issues that impact women in gendered ways, including access, privacy, security, the control of one’s information, and regulation of sexual content.

While the academic community played a primary early role in developing standards and rules for the internet, its recent importance in economic, social and political life, has led other stakeholders, including governments, corporations and civil society organizations to want a say. To facilitate this, in 2006, the UN Secretary General mandated the establishment of an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as a "multilateral, multi-stakeholder, democratic and transparent" forum to run annually from 2006-2010. [1]

According to Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an international network working for free, open and universal internet access as part of a more just world, “the IGF has emerged as a robust place for fairly open debates about existing and emerging facets of critical issues like access, security and development, though it's not free from the problems that plague an unequal world.” [2]

In the last few years, women’s rights advocates have begun to engage with the forum, crafting panels, submitting feedback on governing documents and raising questions for discussion and debate. The 2009 IGF, held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, saw the increased but still insufficient presence of “marginalized” groups, including youth and people with disabilities, and to a lesser extent, people from the Global South and women, including women’s rights advocates.

Margarita Salas, a member of the Sulá Batsú collective in Costa Rica, which engages in social uses of ICTs, collective entrepreneurship and knowledge management processes to strengthen the social economy sector in Latin America and the Caribbean, underscored the importance of the IGF and of the presence of women’s rights, advocates from civil society. She explained, “the issues that are successfully positioned during these meetings are later translated into accepted practices, policies and regulations. So you have to ask yourself which vision of Internet that we want to see prevail, because even if civil society doesn't show up, the technology enterprises will and so will the governments. So it is critical for us to be there.”

Salas also points out that “it's particularly important for women's rights activists to have a strong voice in this space because gender equity is rather absent on the IGF agenda; the predominant perspective is very masculine and northern-based.” Moreover, many people assume that the internet is neutral, including gender-neutral. As a result, there are few discussions at the IGF of the ways ICTs are gendered, including, for example, how ICTs are being used to perpetuate violence against women. [3]

While the presence of women’s rights advocates at the IGF is critical, accessing the Forum itself is challenging on a number of levels.

Jac SM Kee, blogging from the IGF for APC Women, commented that even though the IGF is easier to attend than most high-level for, which are either entirely closed or accessible only by wading through massive bureaucracy, the expense associated with traveling to the IGF, which has thus far been held in remote, five-star locations, and the lack of child care facilities or children being allowed at the venue prohibit many women from attending. APC has called for regional IGFs to take place next year in advance of the international forum, to allow for more participation.

Additionally, Salas explained that many other factors stand as precursors to participation. She pointed out that, in order to participate meaningfully and effectively, “people need to first be aware of the issues that are being dealt with under the name “Internet Governance,” which means prior discussions, capacity building and engagement in spaces such as regional IGFs.”

In addition to the accessibility of the forum itself, women’s rights advocates in attendance flagged a number of key issues about the content of the IGF. Concerns highlighted include the prevalence of child protection discourse; escalated concerns about privacy and security; and tensions around the regulation of sexual content.

Child protection issues figured prominently in the IGF, with a number of panels dedicated solely to the topic. Maya Ganesh, who reviewed one panel on child protection for GenderIT, explained that there were two opposing camps on the issue. One camp argued that the Internet Service Provider (ISP) industry had been lazy and needed to more proactive about regulating child pornography. Opponents argued for the need to ensure children’s safety online without compromising freedom of expression or privacy. They also pointed to the importance of teaching children critical skills needed to orient their identities online. [4]

Salas pointed to the politics of the debate, explaining that discussions often started by stressing the importance of protecting children from pedophiles and progressively moved towards regulating any content related to sexuality. In some cases, proponents of regulation stressed the need to protect children from homosexuality. For example, one participant from Nigeria commented that children are in danger due to the openness and availability of information about gay and lesbian experiences – and that this posed a long-term threat to reproduction. [5]

Wieke Vink from the Youth Coalition on Sexual and Sexual Reproductive Rights, who participated in a panel on content regulation, surveillance and sexual rights, commented that it was important to take a positive approach to sexuality and acknowledge that while privacy and security were necessary, that people also use the internet for personal knowledge and political activism. In her review, Ganesh pointed out that all people, including children, do engage with sexual content online and that all child sexuality couldn’t automatically be painted with the “broad brush of victimization.” [6]

This echoed concerns that the agency of youth and of women were not recognized – and that they were not on panels to speak for themselves but rather were spoken about.

Lack of recognition of agency also cropped up in debates about privacy and security of personal data. Generally, there was a call for and consensus around individuals to have and exercise more control over their personal data. Most of these calls, though, were based on the impetus to protect people rather than ensure their rights. Along these lines, women’s rights advocates called for control to be based on the notion of consent.

This call stood in direct contrast to calls for extending the surveillance powers of governments online, which Salas pointed out emerged with strength at the IGF and fell under the umbrella of and justified the fight against terrorism.

All in all, issues raised by women’s rights advocates attending the IGF point to the need for internet governance to be on the radar of women’s movements. As Salas points out, “In many of the women’s movements, internet governance issues are deemed less urgent or there's no clear understanding of how much internet is a key resource, including, for example, for CEDAW research and reporting, and plays a central role in our societies.” [7] The IGF is one opportunity to link gender advocacy with internet governance.

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