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Is the internet really democratic? How the ‘wired world’ excludes women and other marginalised persons

Web Foundation · April 19, 2017

This is a guest post by Sri Lankan writer Subha Wijesiriwardena, originally published on her blog


This was a short presentation I delivered (with a few small edits) at a panel discussion organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka under the theme  “Cross Cutting Dynamics of Online Democracy; Mainstreaming Internet Freedom and Right to Privacy in Sri Lanka”, to address women’s rights within the context of internet rights and internet governance. 

It’s often said that the internet democratises information and even knowledge itself. We more or less accept this to be true; the internet shattered the elite stronghold on ‘knowledge’. The internet has not only made information more freely available but has changed the very way we understand knowledge and information. What we understand by democratisation is not only that things are made available to more people but that they come to belong to more people. The internet was supposed to be the very embodiment of this – it belongs to no one — it belongs to everyone.

The internet was supposed to be a blueprint for a truly free, fair, equal and democratic society.

However, unsurprising to some of us, over the years it has become evident that the internet is not really fair and democratic as we once believed it could be. The online world is really just a reflection and a parallel of the so-called offline world. This means, misogyny prevails; marginalisation prevails. Violence prevails.

Online, the people who wield power and make decisions are often the same as those who do so offline. It is therefore also the same persons and groups of persons who are most vulnerable to harassment and violence offline, that face the same reality online. While women and girls are not the only groups who are disproportionately targeted in online violence, I will focus today on women and girls.

Women are excluded from enjoying the ‘democracy’ of the internet in more ways than through being the targets of online violence – they are also excluded through plain and simple exclusion. Women are often excluded from ‘tech’ circles and discourses; they are not considered technological innovators – though many are – and are routinely left out of these conversations. Certainly, there are often no women at the table when internet governance policies around the world is being discussed – though universally, it is women and girls who are significantly more likely to be unsafe on the internet than others, and who you would imagine stand to benefit from internet governance.

While in Silicon Valley the optics seem to signal that things are changing– with women tech entrepreneurs becoming more visible – we find that this is unfortunately not a sign that women, as a group, are really able to make landmark decisions that directly affect their own well being and the fulfillment of their human rights online. In ‘technology’, women are still scarce at the policy-making and decision-making levels, though many women are increasingly doing the work of technology. This is not to mention the important issue of what happens to women of colour, and women of the Global South, for whom mere ‘access’ itself is still largely curtailed by poverty, and a lack of autonomy.

The answer to the question ‘Is the internet a free and fair space?’ will vary according to who is being asked, just as the answer to the question ‘Is the world a free and fair place?’ would vary according to who was being asked. Persons who do not endure or experience daily discrimination, harassment, or violence can sometimes willfully believe that the world is free, fair and safe for everyone. This is the same logic within which policies to govern our societies are still often made.

This is the crucial thing to remember about policy and traditional modes of policy-making; for a long time, policies have been made exclusively by small, homogeneous groups of people who do not represent the vast diversity of the human experience, and who therefore develop policies which unfortunately do not address the vast range of real-life issues.

It is the same with the internet – all over the world, discourses about internet rights and internet governance have carried on for years while excluding persons and groups who are disproportionately and sometimes exclusively affected by all kinds of violence and harassment on the internet. Internet policy and internet governance discourses are male-dominated all over the world – though it still cries ‘democratization’.

Melanie Stewart Millar, an award-winning scholar and political science teacher, extensively analyses the tech magazine Wired to develop a critique of the imagery, symbolism, language and methodologies used in tech discourse to build an exclusively elite male narrative which necessarily excludes women and others – while spreading the ideology that technology will ultimately lead to the dissolution of all social inequality.

  • Wired discourse constructs an artificial world which continually sends the same basic message: the digital age is the domain of a masculine digital elite. How does Wired do this? First, it excludes those it considers Other – women, minorities, the poor, the technologically illiterate – to create a high-status, masculine world. The magazine then populates this artificial world with images which reinforce existing hierarchies and support its highly individualistic ideology. Finally, by invoking images of technotopia, Wired’s discourse puts forward a vision which suggests social differences may disappear altogether in the virtual world of the future’
    Melanie Stewart Millar, 1999

And this has been perhaps the legacy of digital discourse – to espouse equality and democracy while reinforcing patriarchal hierarchy; to peddle the fantasy of redistributed power while assigning new kinds of power to the same old powerful.

You will find many critical declarations today which say ‘The Internet is not really a public space – it’s not really a democracy’ but the fact is, it is, it is a public space, it is a democracy, in the only ways we have ever known ‘public space’ or ‘democracy’: Limited to a few, while others traverse it at risk.

We have developed the concept of ‘the digital divide’ but to bring a gendered focus to this has been a struggle.


The digital gender gap is real and is so at many levels.

I want today to look at three issue-areas today and how these could be addressed by progressive policy reform:

  1. Women and access to the internet
  2. Women and girls as targets of online violence and harassment
  3. Women excluded from policy-making and decision-making within internet governance discourses and spaces

I would call this a ‘matrix of exclusion’ because as you will see these things not only work independently, but also work in sync, together, to exclude women from the ‘internet democracy’. Through this we will see that the historical exclusion of women from ‘technology’ endures.

1. Women and access to the internet

  •  ‘Women are about 50% less likely to be connected than men in the same age group with similar levels of education and household income.’ — World Wide Web Foundation

The World Wide Web Foundation’s 2015 Global Report titled ‘Women’s Rights Online: Turning Access into Empowerment’ was a study of seven developing cities; the report draws an almost direct link between access to education, ability to continue education and functional ‘use’ of the internet.

Some excerpts:

  • The most important socio-economic drivers of the gender gap in ICT access are education and age
  • Controlling for income, women who have some secondary education or have completed secondary school are six times more likely to be online than women with primary school or less.
  • Cities with the highest gender gaps in education level such as Nairobi (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda), Maputo (Mozambique), and Jakarta (Indonesia) were also the ones where the highest gender gaps in Internet access were reported.
  • Conversely, in the cities where women’s educational attainment outstrips the men in our sample (New Delhi and Manila), the gender gap in Internet access has closed.

The report asserts: ‘Being female deepens exclusion on every single one of these counts’.

However, it is no good simply analyzing ‘access’ as a development indicator or merely a precursor to the realization of the United Nations designed Sustainable Development Goals.

Inequality in access to the internet for a woman criss-crosses with her buying power, her economic ability and independence, her general level of autonomy and freedom of movement, her exercise of her right to privacy offline – as well as the realization and protection of her right to free expression by her community and her nation at large.

These are important things to ask: does she own the device she uses to access the internet? Does her husband or partner know her passwords? Does she have any free time and in that free time, any privacy? Is there someone looking over her shoulder and monitoring who she is friends with online? Is she generally expected to have opinions and is it acceptable that she expresses them?

Access is not a cold, statistically discernible factor when it comes to women and girls – real access is about real autonomy, and as long as we can’t grant and guarantee women and girls their autonomy, as well as their freedom of expression, in their real-lives, we can’t guarantee that mere ‘access’ will solve their problems.

Policy recommendations to make ‘access’ meaningful:

  • Early education for girls and boys alike in computers, programming, online tools & social networking
  • Erasing differentiations between ‘technical’ subjects for boys and ‘domestication’ subjects for girls in schools
  • Giving girls and boys alike fair and free access to computers and the internet in schools
  • Pro-actively ensuring girls become familiar with computers and the internet
  • Educating girls on exercising their right to privacy offline and online, right to autonomy and free expression
  • Making time to educate parents (especially mothers) and students together on the internet, computer skills

2. Women and girls as targets of online harassment and violence

‘Preventing technology-related VAW is an important component in ending violence against women today and contributes to creating a safe and secure environment for women and girls in every sphere of life’— Association for Progressive Communications (APC)

It is now a well-known fact that women and girls are disproportionately targeted in a range of online violence and abuse, ranging from stalking, verbal abuse, defamation, blackmail, death and rape threats, revenge porn etc – these are now universal problems. Where there is net connectivity, it has opened up new avenues and forms of violence against women.

An article published in 2016 in The Guardian (UK) explored a study, sampling over 1000 women, conducted in Australia. Some excerpts from this article:

  • ‘Australian research finds that nearly half of all women report experiencing abuse or harassment online, and 76% of those under 30’
  • ‘Researchers found that women received twice as many death threats and threats of sexual violence as men.’
  • ‘But 38% of those who had experienced online harassment chose to ignore it, and only 10% reported it to police.’
  • ‘The findings suggested that women believed that online abuse was a growing problem and felt powerless to act over it.’

What’s important to note here are the last two points, which signal the unsettling truth that women don’t really believe that reporting abuse or violence has any positive effect on their lives.

Grassrooted Trust, a Sri Lankan organisation, has been working in schools and with young adults to understand and address some of the fundamental cultural problems around gendered violence and importantly, relationship violance: the framework within which online violence against women and girls s commonly committed.

Earlier this year, they published a now widely read piece called ‘Investigating Sri Lanka’s nude culture’ which opened our eyes to the way gendered cyber exploitation works in age-groups as young as 14-15 years. This also shows the troubling pattern of violence within intimate relationships.

The article explores the organisation’s experiences with 70 cases of cyber exploitation reported to them by young girls, in which they uncovered a dangerous world of online databases of nude photos and home-made videos featuring young Sri Lankan girls, from whom no consent has been taken. Young women are threatened or blackmailed into sending photos of themselves, and often by boyfriends or ex-boyfriends, who then sell this data for profit.

  • ‘Writing this report has, in some sense, been a race to keep up with breaking news, as girl after girl and woman after woman, has come forward to expose physical and verbal attacks on them: teenage girls driven to suicide by online trolling; an airline passenger using her cell phone to record and report physical and sexual harassment from a male co-passenger; an actress publicly responding to targeted online hate speech against her; a former Major League Baseball pitcher using doxing3 to identify people responsible for “Twitter troll” posts with obscene, sexually explicit comments about his teenage daughter.’ UN Women, 2015

A UN Women report, Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls, published in 2015 subtitled A World Wide Wake Up Call, shows us alarming numbers and statistics, and acts as evidence that universally, women are disproportionately targeted in online violence and that this violence intersects with the discrimination and violence they face offline. It also confirms that a large proportion of cyber violence against women is committed by an intimate partner, a former intimate partner, a relative or someone they know – once again, mirroring real-life exactly.

In many countries, cyber violence against women can only be legally remedied through defamation laws, and in civil court, not in a criminal sense. In Sri Lanka, we barely have any capacity to deal with cyber crimes against women at all.

But this again is a reflection of what justice systems are like for women in the offline world; it took us so long to even accept violence against women – especially in their manifestations as domestic violence – was violence at all. Even today, sexual crimes are rarely reported by women, because systemically, the odds are stacked against survivors of violence. The burden of proof is on the victim.

  • “Until domestic violence became a national policy priority, abuse was dismissed as a lovers’ quarrel. Today’s harmless jokes and undue burdens are tomorrow’s civil rights agenda.”– Amanda Hess, Technology Journalist

Organisations which deal with cyber law and policy like CERT Sri Lanka can only meter out archaic solutions to a very quickly growing problem – they can shut down sites where unlawful nude images are shared, for example, but won’t catch the perpetrators. Because there is little to no acceptance of the problem as systemic, gendered violence.

But where laws and policy has failed, technology itself has been helping women feel safer and more secure. Across studies, women report feeling safer because they have a mobile phone, and there are now many apps internationally and regionally, which women can use to alert a friend or relative in case of harassment or danger. Human rights and women’s rights organisations have developed mapping programmes in collaboration with tech organisations, where incidents of physical violence / cyber violence against women can be documented and recorded, geographically.

Policy recommendations for combating VAW online

  • Reasonable reporting mechanisms, actually accessible to women
  • No immediate burden of proof on victim
  • Women officers to receive reports – trained on cyber VAW and how to address victims
  • Policies which enable girls and women to report cyber VAW without a relative/spouse present, knowing sometimes perpetrators are family/partner
  • Officers specifically trained in how to deal with victims who are minors while respecting their autonomy
  • Guarantee of no further invasion of victim’s privacy in court
  • Guarantee of victim’s confidentiality being protected, from time of report being made
  • Educating girls on their rights online and on reporting mechanisms
  • Educating girls to identify violence as violence, no matter the perpetrator
  • Acceptance of cyber VAW as criminal, with consequences for perpetrators
  • Tech companies and organizations work together with rights organisations to use tech to bolster documentation and reporting of cyber and other VAW

Policy must most importantly address structural and deep attitudinal changes in the way justice systems and the legal systems see violence against women.

3. Women excluded from policy-making and decision-making within internet governance discourses and spaces

Women have long since been excluded from decision-making spaces and have been discredited as ‘knowers’, and as purveyors and producers of knowledge – because to accept them as equal in knowledge and insight would be a threat to patriarchal establishments of ‘knowledge’. One of the chief justifications given for excluding women even today from ‘tech’ spaces is that they lack the relevant knowledge; ‘they don’t know’.

When it appears women ‘do know’, there is a large machinery which kicks in then to discredit women. Ultimately this just keeps women out of the room and absent from the table when critical decisions which affect their lives and lives of others are being made.

So much of the work advocacy done in the last 25 years, of getting women connected to technology has been geared towards ‘access’ and increasing connectivity.

APC’s 2012 report Critically Absent discusses how many more women around the world are now active internet users through mobile phone, how technology has helped women grow their businesses, feel safer and engage more actively in the ‘online world’. It cites women tech leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook CFO, in saying that ‘women are increasingly more likely to be active users and engagers on social networking sites etc., and are more active as buyers online.’

So much so that the online world has been referred to as a ‘matriarchy’ by a few male analyst and critics.

But has all our work to bring women into connectivity achieved anything more than turning women into better consumers and more lucrative business opportunities for massive corporations like Facebook?

Unfortunately, in terms of actually bringing women in to decision-making roles at the level of governance and policy-making, we have not made as many leaps.

  • ‘But are we only interested in increasing the number of women who consume internet and electronic tools, rather than defining the world in which they are used? Does it make sense to talk of “matriarchy” based on the large number of women in the use of certain social sites if they are not contributing to the design and function of those sites? The matriarchal analogy looks back. The debate has to get beyond this image. Women want to exercise full citizenship in cyberspace and to articulate the virtual world alongside the real one  to assert their right to autonomy and the freedom to choose, without ties to traditional models.’ – Critically Absent (APC)

There are three main areas which concern women uniquely when it comes to internet rights and governance:

A. Gender-blind policies/policy-making:
For a long time, policies universally – and their makers – have not considered gender as a critical perspective through which divisions and inequalities have to be addressed. They have assumed that working to decrease the ‘digital divide’ singularly through increasing access will solve the issue, and has worked on the assumption that that the divide has no critically gendered perspective; i.e that solving the problem for men would automatically solve it for women. Agendas like the Tunis Agenda assumes that to narrow the digital divide for men would narrow it for women.

B. Privacy and data collection affects women uniquely:
Women and girls are the targets of online threats and harassment, and we have seen that online violence can often go offline and pose very real dangers to women’s lives; it becomes important to note that data collection and information-gathering, which happens frequently on the internet these days, is of specific interest when it comes to women’s rights. Critically Absent states, ‘Often [this] information can be used in ways that threaten women and their families. This aspect of the problem rarely comes up in Internet governance discussion, but is an important component that could change the general understanding of the privacy issue.’

C. Information filtering is disadvantageous to women:
‘Information filtering presents another real disadvantage to women, offsetting the advantage of access to information the Internet is supposed to bring. In many places’ says Critically Absent. Information that is considered culturally taboo can be censored by governments, for example information related to abortion services or sexual and reproductive health and rights. This often disadvantages women directly.

A major issue is simple representation. Simply put, women are poorly represented in the upper-ranks of internet governance institutions and within discourse-spaces and this prevents the agendas from ever receiving critical and valuable gendered input.

  • ‘[in an] ICANN or an IGF meeting, there is a significant, if less than equal, female presence. But, as one moves through the various layers of leadership and responsibility, the number of women in ICANN starts to decrease. One of the big concerns each year is whether any women will get into the ICANN Board of Directors. At the time of writing, out of 15 voting directors, only two were women13. And that is as good as it has been in ICANN. In terms of the IGF and its Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) there has always been a deliberate effort to balance the group in terms of gender as well as regional representation.In addition to women’s participation, one needs to look at how receptive Internet governance institutions are to women’s issues. In general, while women’s participation is welcome, they are not expected to bring up women’s issue. It may be the old fashioned engineering ethos that all issues are gender neutral, or it may be due to policy issues that are believed to be driven ‘purely’ by business goals and trademark issues. Whatever the reason, the issues of Internet governance are not understood as being gendered.’ – Critically Absent (APC)

Policy recommendations to increase participation of women in internet governance:

  • Affirmative action to increase the participation of women and representatives of other historically marginalised groups, across layers of leadership in internet governance bodies
  • Mandate participation of women and other marginalised persons in all internet rights discussions and spaces
  • Mandate that policies and laws should be gender-aware, not gender-blind
  • Women’s rights / gender sensitivity training for policy-makers and tech leaders
  • Cross-cutting analyses of women’s rights offline + online: socio-economic, autonomy, privacy etc
  • Broaden understanding of ‘access’ – quality of autonomous engagement, with dignity and respect, over quantity of connections / increasing consumerism
  • Develop justice systems to support women
  • Protect women’s rights overall

Moving forward

Since women have been historically excluded, the only way to right this wrong is to set about proactively, affirmatively including them – in spaces, in discussions, in decision-making moments. This has to go hand in hand with actually acknowledging and listening to women’s experiences, their knowledge and their insights. The truth is that the inclusion of women, a gendered perspective and women’s rights angle in the discourses of internet governance will not only benefit women but everyone, including and especially other marginalized persons.

Democratisation here can’t only mean the democratisation of access to information and knowledge. It must also mean the democratisation of the production of information and knowledge. When we say ‘increase women’s access’ it can’t just be about getting them online but about how we can increase the quality of women’s engagement online, their role as knowledge and information producers and more importantly, room for them to engage and consistently shape and change discourse, without harm or risk of attack.

Making the internet truly democratic and safe, free and fair for everyone is really about making our world safe, free and fair for everyone. Underlying this has to be a proactively enhanced and rigorously implemented project to upend the current cultures and attitudes which govern and dictate how our justice systems work – and to reform the justice systems themselves.

Finally, we have to build and promote a rights-based discussion on internet governance and democracy – we have to take it out of the sphere of the ‘digital’ the ‘tech’ and to bring it to the table where we are talking about human beings, their rights, their societies and their inequalities. We have to make it a discussion about achieving real equality – and this means a serious commitment from governments and institutions, public and private, that goes beyond the aspirational promise of tech setting us free.


For more from Subha, visit her blog and follow her on twitter at @subha_sl

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