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The Internet Infrastructure is Not ‘Gender-neutral’!

Art by Dianne Olivan
Art by Dianne Olivan

The year 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, which outlined a comprehensive review of issues concerning women and produced an overall agenda for women empowerment. The Fourth World Conference on Women gathered representatives from 180 countries for ten days to discuss issues that concern the modern woman.

The meeting has been pivotal in the acknowledgement of women’s rights in official institutional spaces, but it was not until 2005—14 years after the public launch of the World Wide Web—that women’s rights activists were able to successfully include gender in discussions on ICT. The Tunis Agenda for the Information Society from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) publicized a commitment to provide information access and capacity to the disenfranchised—women, youth, indigenous peoples, and rural communities, among others.

That same meeting also called for the establishment of Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a space to discuss policies that govern the Internet and technologies. However, since its first convening in 2006, a main session on gender was not institutionalised until after 11 years, in 2017.

Accompanied by the continuous struggle for recognition for women’s rights in digital platforms, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) started the global campaign Take Back the Tech! to combat technology-related violence against women and queers in 2006.

In 2014, APC again led the drafting of statements that provide “a framework for women’s movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology.” These statements led to The Feminist Principles of the Internet, which has 17 principles that discuss issues on access, movements, economy, expression, and embodiment.

The recent dates signify that it takes years and decades of continuous struggle to recognize our rights in digital spaces. And one of the more controversial viewpoints I have heard in a few convenings (and the focus of this short essay) is that the development of tech infrastructure operates in a vacuum, devoid of gender politics.

Gendered gap

A (very) quick scan of the current leadership demographic in popular tech would show that the white privileged men still dominate the industry. While there are more women in tech today, and companies are taking an active role in responding to gender imbalance (sometimes to fill diversity quotas), these facts do not necessarily give women a seat at the decision-making table.

This might mean that this thriving ecosystem contributes to the reactive nature of tech development in acknowledging issues concerning women. By observation, the need to add safety provisions central to women comes after, usually as a response to backlash or feedback. It is seldom added as a cornerstone, as a cultural virtue.

Our needs and susceptibility to attacks and abuse on online platforms take a backseat in infrastructure development, which is why platforms and apps “developed by women, for women” are effective unique selling points.

We should encourage a deeper review of existing power dynamics. We must remember that any infrastructure (or any output) reflects the politics and psyche of the groups and individuals funding and developing it. The needs and solutions these groups perceive motivate every protocol, system, or hardware included in the development of their infrastructure.

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This requires a systemic change. Feminist internet activists, accompanied by the call to challenge current ecosystems by penetrating them, call for the migration and development of alternative tech.

Calling and rallying towards alternatives, open source

Feminist Internet activists, in response to the non-inclusion of gender issues in tech development, convince civil society organisations to switch to using open-source technologies.

Going back to the Feminist Principles of the Internet, the Open Source principle says, “We are committed to creating and experimenting with technology, including digital safety and security, and using free/libre and open source software (FLOSS), tools, and platforms. Promoting, disseminating, and sharing knowledge about the use of FLOSS is central to our praxis.”

We see open source technology as the definite alternative to the restrictive, capitalist nature of the current technology. However, one issue is that the emergence of alternative and open source tech does not mean it automatically acknowledges gender-grounded issues. In fact, the open-source community also has a diversity problem.

Dabbling and investing in open source development requires access and capacity to veer away from ubiquitous tech. Those coming from a place of privilege have the capacity to drive open source initiatives. It requires the capacity to self-organise, the capacity to fund, and the capacity to develop—opportunities that are not easily accessible to women.

The call to switch to alternative tech should be accompanied by the call for an alternative, more accessible system that allows women to fully participate.

Illustration by Mack Garrison via Behance. CC BY-NC 4.0 .
Illustration by Mack Garrison via Behance. CC BY-NC 4.0 .

If we develop open-source tech with politics similar to that of existing capitalist tech, with no regard for gender and access issues, it cannot contribute to the systematic change that the movement is calling for.

Infrastructure development is not devoid of gender dynamics. Without recognising the gender and power dynamics at play, the call for alternative tech is dubious and irrelevant to the overall vision of the movement.

Next steps

There should be spaces and platforms hosting discussions that further discuss (and debunk) the belief that infrastructure is devoid of gender and power politics. Infrastructure development dictates the evolution of the platforms that are borne out of it.

We should work towards not having platforms or tech whose selling points are safety for women and queers—the aim should be all these spaces are accessible, secure, and safe.

Women and queers have been involved in tech development, but the (un)evolving landscape of the industry, even of those that are “alternatives”, has continued to provide opportunities for entry only to those coming from a place of power and privilege.

Safeguards against online gender-based violence and other gender-specific issues should not be a second thought in developing tech infrastructure; rather, it must be an integral virtue, from conceptualisation to maintenance. And this is only possible if women and queers are given access and opportunities to drive these developments.

About the Author

Dianne Olivan is EngageMedia’s Program Officer for digital rights and the Video4Change Network. Her role mainly involves providing project management support for both programs. In 2019, Dianne was the logistics lead for Coconet II: Southeast Asia Digital Rights Camp.

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