Queering the Internet at the Internet Freedom Festival

The internet has become a space for sexual exploration. From teenagers exploring their sexual identity and sharing information with others to sexual rights activism, the internet offers countless opportunities to navigate our bodies and identities. At the same time, possibilities for surveillance and censorship have also increased. This is how the Queering the internet session started at the Internet Freedom Festival, on 9 March, using the Deep Dives collection Sexing the Interwebs as a starting point.

“Sexual expression is at the heart of political expression” was one of the highlights from the session. Which bodies and kinds of stories will be represented in movies, novels, other forms of storytelling?

During the session, participants framed technology as both an enabler and disabler. Anonymity options, for example, were presented as helpful for the exploration of sex, gender and technology, while recognising that programmes and applications usually have binary man/woman options that are not inclusive for people who don’t clearly identify with either.

Mexico was presented as an example of the dominant narrative that blames victims of sexual violence instead of those exercising it. The Mexican government recently launched a campaign around sexting and made it about the need to “think before sexting” (pensar antes de sextear), implying that women should avoid expressing and exploring their sexuality if they don’t want to be exposed by their partners. Blame is put on the victim and the supposed “solution” is to restrict her rights.

Censorship and surveillance were framed as two sides of the same coin. We know that women’s bodies and sexualities have been subjected to surveillance and censorship, but how is the internet being used for that? What does sexuality have to do with the internet? The work of APC was presented, emphasising the importance of research for a better understanding of the threats. Social media allows for communication and exploration but let’s remember that they are tools for surveillance, their profits depend on it. Key questions around this include, how is the technology designed and for whom? What do the algorithms tell us regarding normative and non-normative bodies and identities? Regardless of who is designing the technology, even if with non-discriminatory intention, discriminatory impact is inherent to the way technology is designed today.

Some bodies are under-represented online, others hyper-represented. Everything non-normative, including bodies with disabilities, trans bodies… is both invisible and hypervisible, you are outside of the norm and with no power to engage with it. How do we check and balance this?

Issues with the right-wing religious force in India were raised. Indian religious forces enjoy impunity in their stigmatisation of sexuality, especially against those communities which stray from the norm, such as the BDSM community. How do we criticise right-wing ideology while keeping our non-profits safe, as they are being threatened? Sexual exploration is risky in countries like India, non-profits have been de-registered on technical routes. Dating apps are also being surveilled in India, along with other countries, with religious authorities infiltrating LGBTQ forums, which has many turning to Facebook for dating.

Participants agreed that activists shouldn’t organise on Facebook. Even though the platform is well suited for dissemination and outreach, it is unsuitable for people doing political organising. We should not forget Facebook is part of a capitalist business model, technology built with the economy of surveillance in mind.

What is consensual sexual expression, what should we protect and what should we regulate? These were other questions open for discussion. There are certain cultural rules and norms that allow some expression and censor others. Menstruation often gets censored, while non-consensual sex often gets shared. What about underage kids sexting? It is consensual but still illegal in many legislations. When it comes to sexuality, often the voices of those whose sexuality is being spoken about are missing from the conversation. In order to ensure that freedom of sexual expression exists under the umbrella of freedom of expression, there is a need to create spaces and a culture which promotes consensual sexual expression.

What about child pornography? This issue is often being dealt with without incorporating child’s rights groups. They need to be included in the technology conversation, not left aside because of the technical divide.

With the internet and technology playing increasingly prominent roles in community work and activism, digital rights groups cannot afford to work in isolation and have to work in tandem with other organisations such as those which work on women’s rights, reproductive rights, etc., to ensure that the online space and technology are more inclusive and so that the community-based organisations are more digitally secure.

More training in digital self-defence from a feminist perspective is needed, integrating physical and digital self-defence, was one of the conclusions. Queer communities need capacity building to make themselves more secure, in a digital security landscape that is often not accessible for LGBTQ communities (in many countries, it is run by non-feminist communities).

Knowing your technology is like knowing your body, the health of your technology is like the health of your body. Just like you go to the dentist and you floss, make sure you use tools like VPN for basic protection. It is important to not just recognise the threats but also collectively work on the solutions to counter these threats.