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“Has there been a gendered reality to the issues discussed in the previous sessions of the workshop?” was the question posed. “In every single one” was the immediate response. So began Day 4 of the Internet Rules: Unboxing Digital Laws in South Asia workshop, with Radhika Radhakrishnan, a researcher at the Internet Democracy Project, and Vrinda Bhandari, a lawyer at the Supreme Court of India, leading the session on “Gender and vulnerable groups”.

They centred their presentation on two important concepts: the idea of intersectionality, that all of our experiences are defined by the multiple identities we occupy, and the idea that data is just as personal and embodied as our bodies and an experience online can be as real and intimate as one offline. Although there are a slew of laws that seek to protect women and vulnerable groups in South Asia, Radhika and Vrinda noted that women rarely take refuge under these laws due to socioeconomic barriers like victim blaming or lack of financial resources and skewed power dynamics between the perpetrators and the victims.

Violence online also becomes harder to navigate since algorithms don’t understand contexts, and datasets are biased. And in instances related to content moderation where courts have intervened, verdicts have either been excessive, like complete blocking of pornography, or binary and without any recognition of nuance, like the understanding that consent can be multilayered.

The session also covered the gendered aspects of access, and the disproportionate response from the public to certain kinds of ICT policies that affect the marginalised more than others and make meaningful access much harder for many sections of people.

The second session of Day 4 was a panel discussion moderated by Arindrajit Basu from the Centre for Internet and Society. The panel focused on a range of emerging issues related to technology that have had or potentially could have a significant impact on South Asia.

On data sovereignty, the panel agreed that much of data is controlled by those with money and power, and they are able to make decisions on how this data is used with little input from us. To counter this, and fill the gaps in data protection regulations, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is increasingly looked at as the norm in South Asia; however, it doesn’t adapt well to the realities of the global South and poses a challenge to smaller firms. While the GDPR is aspirational, it is important also to push for localisation of data, and more access to our own data.

The panel also discussed artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms, still mostly controlled by the West, but whose impact in the global South is even more stark and polarising because of the existing asymmetries. With more governments inclined towards these models as a form of control, there is a crucial need for activism, awareness and the adoption of a multistakeholder approach to push back against systems and regulations that not only don’t protect human rights, but indeed actively infringe on them.

So what can civil society do to shift this discourse and build consensus around more rights-respecting regulations to govern technology? The panel’s response: engage with policy makers strategically, understand the socio-political contexts in different countries so we can build long-lasting relationships with the people in charge, and most importantly, don’t underestimate the power of networks and work collectively.

Click here for more information about the Internet Rules: Unboxing Digital Laws in South Asia workshop.