Can we make internet standards feminist? Discussion at the Internet Freedom Festival

What are the impacts of internet protocols on society? How do protocols affect discriminated groups? Can human rights and feminism be embedded in protocol designs?

Participants at the Internet Freedom Festival taking place in Valencia, Spain, joined Alexandra Haché from Tactical Tech, Jac sm Kee from the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Mallory Knodel from ARTICLE 19, Juliana Guerra from Derechos Digitales and others to discuss how protocols are being designed and defined in a session entitled "Let's make internet standards feminist", held on Tuesday, 2 April. More specifically, a discussion was opened up around a draft that is being developed by the Human Rights Protocols Considerations Research Group (HRPC-RG) at the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF). The IRTF promotes research of importance to the evolution of the internet by creating focused, long-term research groups working on topics related to internet protocols, applications, architecture and technology, while the parallel organisation, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), focuses on the shorter-term issues of engineering and standards making.

The session, which started by introducing the Feminist Principles of the Internet, aimed to be the first step in opening a channel between the HRPC-RG and the feminist internet movement, in order to strengthen feminist reading, analysis and practice towards building a more feminist and fair internet. Or, in other words, “an opportunity to get the IETF out of their comfort zone" and open the door to more critical views on how internet architecture and protocols are being designed and defined.

Gender is often avoided under "neutrality pretensions", based on the belief that design is only about running code and has no political implications or consequences, when in fact design arises from bias on how identity and gender are expressed in digital environments. This idea was one of the highlights of the session, along with the need to increase knowledge on subjects such as intersectionality, corporality, diversity and violence.

Is it possible to embed human rights and feminism in protocols? was another question posed. Participants agreed that only by changing the dynamics, the culture, often in hostile, aggressive or segregationist environments, will we be able to change how machines work. Technology is made from places of privilege, and this is not being acknowledged. 

A discussion was started around developments in IETF spaces. Most cutting-edge developments and community-driven protocols are not being developed in IETF and similar spaces, and being part of these bodies requires the backing of big corporations such as Google, one of the participants stated. However, even though protocols adopted through the IETF normally take about five years, promoting them through this body is actually more effective, as most companies are inclined to implement them, another participant stressed.

The importance of continuing to promote the idea that technology is not neutral was one of the conclusions of the session, where participants were invited to join the work being carried out at the IRTF/IETF around feminism and internet protocols.

About the IFF

The Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) held in Valencia, Spain on a yearly basis has become one of the main events for civil society on internet rights, with a special focus on surveillance, censorship and circumvention worldwide. The 2019 IFF marks an important milestone, as it is celebrating its fifth anniversary, with occasions for celebration and reflection. 

The Festival can be followed remotely through the #InternetFF hashtag and by following @InternetFF. At APC, we'll be sharing live updates on @apc_news and @takebackthetech.

Read also:

Exploring the impact of internet protocols and architectures on human rights 

APC at the Internet Freedom Festival 2019

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