Internet governance: If we are not at the table, we will be on the menu
In 2001 while working at Agenda, a South African feminist academic journal, we produced an edition titled ‘Globalisation: challenging dominant discourses’. The journal problematised the realpolitik of a global neo-liberal economic system that was marked by developing countries’ indebtedness, the rise of the market and the devastating consequences of structural adjustment policies for women of the global South.
I remember hours of debate about the exploitation of women’s productive and reproductive labour to feed the market, the appropriation, depoliticisation and institutionalization of ‘gender’ within the International Monetary fund and the World Bank and narrowing women’s citizenship rights.
A quote from Vivienne Taylor, from DAWN – Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era and contributed to that edition – stayed with me. She wrote: “In this era of globalization there have been more rules, standards, policies and institutions for open global markets than for people and their rights”.
So it was with a sense of déjà vu that I sat in the auditorium of the Halic Convention Centre where the 2012 AWID Forum took place and listened to feminist activists, economists, and academics and unpack the Forum theme, ‘Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice’.
Eleven years after working on the globalization issue at Agenda, here we were reflecting on what felt like the same concerns. But there was one huge difference. In the years in between, the interneti and ICTis had become central to how we lived, worked, played and loved.
I went to all of the sessions in the ‘Changing World Geopolitics and Global Governancei: Making sense of the trends, actors and their implications for women’s rights’ in-depth thematic cluster. Three key concepts were raised in different ways by almost all of the speakers over the six sessions: knowledge, corporations and human rights.
These three concepts are also critical to our internet rights iand women’s rights work. Whether we are talking about access and control of resources, intellectual propertyi, representation and content, security and safety, privacyi and pleasure … all these issues are are all tied up in notions of who owns knowledge, they are implicated in our ability to realise our human rights and increasingly they are influenced by the power of corporations.
We live in a world in which knowledge has become a premium resource and intellectual property regimes and patentis trump access to life saving drugs and information.
The dream of a liberatory internet, a great leveler that would open us up to spaces and ideas and people, is fading fast as bilateral agreements are made that decide who owns what, when, where, why and how; who has the right to speak on what and to whom.
Like all the resources before it, knowledge has been commodified. Part of our struggle against this commodification relates to our own ability to document, store and disseminate our own histories and lives. We carry this knowledge in our diaries, in our bodies, in the photographs we look at, in the notes we share and the long rambling emailis.
Some of us share these histories via Facebook, YouTube, and other spaces where we are present, and tag each other so that we read a note, comment on photo, add a memory to a march, a protest, a celebration. The thread of comments weaves together our history and our stories.
We work collaboratively through using tools like Google Docs, sharing book chapters, getting inputs, writing reports and developing brilliant ideas we work on together across the boundaries of country and region.
In the process we submit details about our lives, including our identity, assets, relationships, movements and preferences into the care of the corporations that control these spaces. In this way we become part of producing the very resources that gives them their power and influence. We become not only the market for the resources, but the resource itself.
To apply to Taylors’ question in this context: Do we know the rules, standards and policies that are governing our engagement with each other in these spaces? To whom do we turn when our rights are violated and we are treated as resources and not citizens? In her contribution to this edition of GenderIT.org which was first presented during the AWID Forum, Jac sm Kee, explores the internet as a global public resource governance and asks “If States were given the overriding role, then what kind of internet would we have? If not, how can we hold giant multinational corporations accountable? And where would women, in all of our diversity, stand?”
Of course it would be misleading to believe that we are passive users, blind to the seduction of the evil corporations and our paternalistic big brother governmentis. As active agents in the production of knowledge and users of the platforms we critique, how our actions implicated in supporting a system that has monetized our relationships, networks and communications for the purpose of profit? Dafne Plou takes on this question as she reports on the WNSP AWID panel on privacy and pleasure and asks the question most of us know too well the answer to: “Have you ever spied on your ex on Facebook?”
Multiple contributions by Erika Smith explore the power and opportunities that the internet holds for women’s organizing, reinforcing its status as global public good. She reports on how Harassmap has linked their online and offline activism through building communities of people who are responding to street harassment in Egypt and, among other contributions, a workshop on using information design for women’s advocacy.
This edition of GenderIT.org squarely locates the feminist politics of technology and within the broader debates around economic justice and women’s rights that the AWID Forum sought to highlight. It problematizes the notion of ‘free services’, the relationships between private corporations and governments and their responsibility towards citizens and centralizes the experiences of women’s rights activists in the new global governance of the internet.
The contributions remind us that despite the often overwhelming reach and greed of the neoliberal paradigm we occupy, the opportunities presented by an open internet remain one of the few ways through which we can not only imagine a just, equal world, but also through which we can build solidarity, connections and action to make it possible.
But, unless women are at the table where decisions around governing the internet are made by governments and corporations, as a speaker said on the last day, women will be on the menu.