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Internet politics: a feminist guide to navigating online power

Recognising the political importance of our technical decisions is within reach, leading ultimately to reclaiming power and control of our activism in the digital sphere as well as in the offline world.

In feminist activism, it goes without saying that the personal is political. Our technical decisions, however, are subject to far less scrutiny but their effects have equally far-reaching consequences upon our activism.

Few would deny that control and power are feminist issues. But what about digital control or online power?

At the AWID Forum in September, one activist told me that their organisation had closed its own website, and is instead communicating with its communities entirely through its Facebook page. This decision makes sense for several reasons. Facebook's existing infrastructure is easy to use, and the community this organisation seeks to reach is already using Facebook. In addition, it’s cheaper, easier and requires less maintenance.

Politically, though, this means this organisation has relinquished control and power over its online presence to a largely opaque, profit-driven, US-based mega-corporation, with zero accountability. Recently, they’ve noticed that the new membership rate of its page is not increasing at the same rate as previously, perhaps indicating that its visibility on the newsfeeds of people who would potentially be interested in their work has somehow decreased.

It could be any number of factors, though – that the page isn't being “recommended” to potential members as often as it was before, or that it doesn't come up as highly when people search for related keywords, among others. Frustratingly, they have no way of finding out what the actual reason is.

As a result, part of the organisation's already limited budget that should have been spent on its own communications is now being spent on Facebook Ads, to make sure that their group reaches people who might be interested - but again, there’s no way of knowing how effective this is.

To reiterate: this means that money is being transferred from a small, resource-constrained activist organisation to Facebook, a company which reported a profit of $3.69 billion in profit last year. This direct consequence of relying on proprietary and corporate-owned technologies for our activism is a loss of control and autonomy.

Increasing access at what cost?

In Bangladesh, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) advocates have had to take tough decisions around whether or not to engage with Free Basics, a platform offered by Facebook, which has the noble-sounding goal of “connecting the unconnected”.

Free Basics aims to do this by partnering with mobile phone operators in certain countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America to provide access to certain websites and services without extra cost to the user. This kind of practice is known as “zero-rating,” and means that someone using the Free Basics application would be able to access certain websites without having a data subscription, or paying any more than they usually would. This results in Free Basics being the very first contact that millions of people, especially in rural areas, may well have with the internet.

However, while zero-rated applications like Free Basics provide concrete access to some websites and internet services, it violates a principle known as net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without prioritising or blocking particular sites or applications.

Under zero-rated applications like Free Basics, just a tiny section of the internet is provided for free. Content shown on the app is moderated by those in charge of Free Basics who have a great deal of control over what people see and what they don’t and how the personal data of users is being managed (or further used) on the platform.

Because of this violation of net neutrality, digital rights activists in many countries, notably India, have been campaigning against Free Basics. Though it has been launched in Bangladesh without any regulatory hitches, just next door in India, campaigners mobilised a huge movement of people to speak up against Free Basics plans, which led to zero-rated applications being banned by their regulatory agency.

For SRHR advocates in Bangladesh, a potential partnership with Free Basics and Facebook provides a number of visible and concrete benefits.

Without any extra cost to the activist groups, they have the opportunity to have their information appear on the Free Basics app in Bangladesh – the content within it is provided free of cost to the users. This would increase the reach of their information, thus potentially educating more women than before about important sexual rights and reproductive health topics. For Free Basics, it looks good that they are including topics like this in their initial offering of the application. Indeed, just looking at this part of the puzzle could give the impression that a partnership fits the aims and resources of both parties, almost perfectly.

But partnering with a platform like Free Basics means handing over control of who sees the content, how the content is edited, and how long it stays available, to the people behind Free Basics, i.e. Facebook. Beyond control over content, it also means providing data to Free Basics on who accesses the services which essentially amounts to the personal data of their beneficiaries.

Many of the issues addressed in sexual rights advocacy have traditionally been sensitive within the Bangladeshi context - and at the moment, this kind of information is being mediated by a proprietary gatekeeper with zero accountability measures. There is no way to hold it to account - it’s not a public service, it’s a private one. As such, it could shut down, change content, or change its terms and conditions at any time.

What initially seemed to be an ideal partnership, then, has many hidden disadvantages in the longer term, and on a political level. Some SRHR groups have decided to partner with Free Basics for now, but the fact remains that there are important political implications of this decision.

Recognising realities

Pragmatically speaking, it is important to recognise that many activist groups have very limited resources, especially those working on politically controversial topics, or in poor countries. They simply have no other option right now but to engage with and use the easiest options out there - which are overwhelmingly proprietary tools.

Human rights defenders I’ve spoken to are forced to make pragmatic decisions around their uses of technology, favouring Google Drive for collaborating with others, despite this potentially allowing the US Government to access their data. Using open source software would, theoretically, allow individuals to have more control over what they do, and if the software has security audits, provide assurance that their privacy is being protected. But for now at least, the reliability and usability of open source alternatives for activists working in high-risk environments is limited.

How can we change this, given the constraints and difficult realities of feminist activism?

Building alternatives

Happily, some groups and organisations focus on finding and building alternative options which reflect feminist politics online, as well as, off. The Association for Progressive Communications has developed a series of Feminist Principles of the Internet, and has gathered a community of people who are working to turn those principles into reality - starting by imagining what a feminist internet would look like.

Engage Media, a social and environmental justice organisation from Asia Pacific, has built Plumi, an open source video-sharing web application.

Their aim is to create “truly democratic media, where independent video initiatives gain control over their own distribution infrastructure.”

It’s a feminist alternative to YouTube, empowering the creator of a video to hold power over the infrastructure rather than the corporation holding power over the content creator.

For now, these examples remain as the outliers rather than the norm. For the norm to change and for activists to make technical decisions that accurately reflect their political ideologies, a number of things need to happen.

Understanding the potential consequences of our technology choices and making responsible data decisions require a higher level of technical capacity among the decision-makers in an organisation which often simply isn’t present. In my work at Data & Society, I’m looking at the role of “tech translators” - people who help social change communities with lower tech literacy understand and communicate with more tech-savvy people. There seems to be a clear need for people to play this translation role, helping convey context, needs and technical realities to pave the way for well-informed decision making.

As well as this, on the technical side, there needs to be usable, open-source alternatives to the array of proprietary tools that are currently being used to meet their needs. It is unrealistic to expect people to eschew proprietary tools that are meeting all of their needs in lieu of unreliable alternatives.

On the user side, activists need to recognise the political importance of their technical decisions, and then be able to translate their contexts and ideologies into the digital sphere. Short-term, this translation might happen through key individuals with high levels of tech literacy or through direct support from organisations like The Engine Room. Long-term, though, there needs to be an investment of time and effort to boost technical literacy across the board.

Though the long term goal might be daunting, the first step of recognising the political importance of our technical decisions is within reach, leading ultimately to reclaiming power and control of our activism in the digital sphere as well as in the offline world.


This article is republished as part of AWID's content partnership with Open Democracy 50.50