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The internet is becoming an important space for the expression, construction and subversion of emerging and hegemonic discourses. In particular, it is a critical avenue for the articulation and negotiation of issues that have been prohibited, restricted or to some extent regulated in the “offline” public life.

Arguments for content regulation on the internet related to protection

Different actors including governments, information and communication technologies (ICT) corporations and conservative groups are advocating for and implementing regulation of internet content related to sexuality. In this debate, the internet is framed as an unruly space fraught with imminent and unknown dangers. The ‘borderless’ information-landscape is presented as a threat to safety and security, one that needs to be monitored and controlled. The individual is located as having limited capacity to restrain the potential damage, with its pervasive risks augmented by a mystifying technical language.

Also in this debate, several groups – notably women and children – are constructed as particularly vulnerable to exploitation and risk, thus underscoring the need for measures to protect them from such threat. As one consequence, the power to regulate information flows and access to content is claimed by social – and presumably benevolent institutions – whether governmental, inter-governmental, the private sector or other organised bodies – rather than left to the choice of or self-regulation by the affected user.

Many decision-makers remain closed to the potentials and benefits of self-regulation and informed internet use as credible avenues of action and policy choices, while over-emphasizing the risks the internet can bring to both (vulnerable) individuals and to the country.

The other side of the coin

As such, little balance is afforded to discussions on the important role of the internet for people to access information and exercise their rights to expression and communication. Specifically, it ignores how the governance of the internet may affect and impact upon negotiation of (social) boundaries, self-definition, community building, knowledge-sharing and well as the rights of users with diverse sexualities, sexual health practices and sexual health information needs to – amongst others – sexual expression and access to relevant information.

Instead, the concept of ”harmful content” is deployed in a way that negates the possibility of divergent understandings of and preferences for content and compels acceptance of regulation in the interest of protecting the vulnerable and (morally) weak.

The development of the internet through actual use and practice has resulted in a terrain of information and communication technologies that is rich, complex and often unpredictable in terms of utility and value. For example, online applications such as “YouTube — a video sharing platform — is valuable insofar as the ways it has been employed by users with strategies as varied as sharing private moments to rendering publicly visible human rights violations that may have remained hidden.

Current attempts to intervene and their limitations

It is debatable whether content regulation vis-a-vis censorship would effectively address concerns about the existence of ‘harmful’ content on the internet . Many technical developments are evolved in tandem with practical strategies to overcome policy driven legislations on content regulation, such as mirroring sites and web proxy applications like Psiphon —developed specifically to circumvent internet censorship in particular countries.

Further, apart from ISP or government level censorship, there are multiple content regulation strategies that are enforced by the private sector (such as online application providers) at the same breath as they aim to promote the right to communicate. For example, the usage and subscription of web services such as Facebook is encumbered with its own user-policy related to content regulation that includes peer review and self-regulation strategies.

How users have subverted the limits of these spaces through actual practice, how far these boundaries are internalised without critical reflection, who benefits from such regulation and at whose expense, is an area which is currently not comprehensively explored and investigated.

This imbalance between actual knowledge and pre-emptive strategies demonstrates an urgent need for the lived experiences of affected groups to inform and guide policy making for a more accountable process of decision-making regarding regulation of internet content.

For example, the Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA) United Kingdom have called for an evidence-based research looking at how children and abusers behave online and at the attitudes of parents and children to online risks in their response to the European Commission Public Consultation on Safer Internet and Online Technologies for Children (ISPA UK, 2007) .

EROTICS: New research starting on sexuality rights and the internet from APC

Such a call supports the need for cross-country research on the engagement with and use of various online platforms by sexual health and rights workers, parents, policy makers, advocates and other key actors, and the different understandings of ”harm” that shape their engagement with and experiences of these digital spaces. It is not only a question of what “harmful content” is, but what constitutes harm in virtual spaces in general. For example current content regulation practices that seek to prevent exposure to pornographic or other harmful content do not necessarily lead to lesser harm but inadvertently deny/limit freedom of expression or access to vital information on sexuality or health such as AIDS or safe sex.

The APC Women’s Rights Programme (APC WRP) is carrying out an exploratory study on sexuality rights and the internet until the end of 2010 with support from the Ford Foundation.

Through this research, the complexity and socio-political investment by and impact on different stakeholders in the debates and practices surrounding content regulation, sexualities, sexual health and sexual rights can be better understood. It will also yield critical insight on key policy questions concerning the growing role of the internet in people’s lives and how one might seek to reinforce the informed use and self-regulation in the use of the internet.

This builds on APC WRP’s recommendation to the IGF 2007 debate, that pointed out the importance of involving diverse voices of end-users from different political, social and civil contexts to better reflect the complexity of perceptions of “harmful content” and what that might mean for content regulation on the “borderless” internet.

As an alternative to blanket provisions and categories for content regulation, the APC WRP recommendations propose that regulations must evolve more organically and must take account of the need to educate the public on informed internet use and the ability to self-regulate based on the human rights, values and diverging socio-cultural practices among end-users.

Further reading

Kee, Jac sm. 2005. Women’s human rights: violence against women, pornography and ICTs. APC WNSP

Malhotra, Namita. 2007. The world wide web of desire – content regulation on the internet. APC WNSP.

ISPA UK. 2007. ISPA response to the European Commission Public Consultation on Safer Internet and online technologies for children

Areas of work