White paper on feminist internet research

Sachini Perera

The APC Women's Rights Programme has been working towards imagining and making a feminist internet by building and strengthening networks of researchers, activists, academics, thinkers, coders, artists and others. As part of the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN) project, supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), this white paper aims to assess feminist internet research in relation to internet governance and policy, with a particular focus on scholarship in the global South.

Out of all the topics identified in a mapping exercise, the white paper explores in depth eight topics in order to understand a feminist approach to these subjects, key areas of analysis and boundary pushing by feminist internet research, and opportunities for further research. The topics are access, expression, pleasure, online gender-based violence (GBV), surveillance, data and datafication, artificial intelligence and the digital economy.

The paper also outlines how gender and related thematic areas are discussed in internet policy spaces, with a focus on the global Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and offers recommendations for further research, ways of making and disseminating research, policy making and accountability, and funding priorities in accordance with the research.

Overview of findings from the white paper

Feminist internet research is bringing critical analysis to various aspects and layers of the internet, critiquing the ways neoliberal capitalist patriarchal structures and systems are extended to and embedded in the design, infrastructure, business models, economies and governance of the internet.

Feminist internet research considers how gender justice can be achieved in the ways we belong, work and make on the internet and shows that this is not possible without considering the economic and environmental dimensions of the internet as well as the intersectionality of discriminations and violence that women, LGBTIQA+ people and others face on the internet, based on our various identities as well as our structural inequalities.

The research mapped shows that the development paradigm must move beyond making a “business case” for gender justice or framing empowerment within neoliberal individualism, and recognise how digital citizenship and empowerment, which are local, grassroots and context-specific, are being made and remade by communities.

Feminist research finds that while state and development actors promote the “empowerment” dimensions of women and other marginalised groups of people gaining access to the internet, the lack of an underlying rights framework results in such access not coming hand in hand with relevant freedoms and protections that would ensure meaningful and sustainable access.

Much of the research explored in this white paper resists polarising, totalising and deterministic approaches to technology and the internet, and builds from the realities of the global South. Feminists resist and subvert surveillance, datafication, online gender-based violence (GBV) and the neoliberal capitalist patriarchal norms and logic that drive them.

Feminist internet research calls for different levels of accountability from all actors involved in the making and governance of the internet whether it is states, corporations, civil society or academia.

Feminist internet research continues to support the project of reforming the internet but points out inherent limitations of doing so without recognising and addressing historical and ongoing hegemonies that have shaped our world, including the internet and other information and communications technologies (ICTs).

Feminist internet research points to a pressing need to shift from a neoliberal capitalist, disembodied approach to data to one that is centred on upholding the rights, fundamental freedoms and dignity of people who embody data and are affected by decisions made about and based on data.

Feminist conceptualisations, theories and practices of consent, labour, design, law, gender, privacy, care, etc. are presented as ways to (re)construct the internet with the needs and realities of the most marginalised groups of people at the centre. The work and learnings of those who are already doing this work are documented through feminist research. Feminist researchers are also introducing frameworks for decolonising oppressive structures, systems and designs, in order to do such reconstruction.

Feminist frameworks to decolonise artificial intelligence (AI), for example, share an aim to go beyond merely fixing or reforming AI and instead getting to the root of these issues which are broader and deeper than AI.

Feminist internet research resists disembodied and dehumanised approaches to the internet and keeps recentring discussions on data, surveillance, violence, pleasure, algorithms, digital economy, etc. on the embodied harms and embodied opportunities these offer for people.

Feminists are connecting dots between seemingly unrelated topics like online GBV and the digital economy, and reaching out across movements, regions and communities to understand separate and common struggles.

A feminist approach requires more intersectionality in how we understand, research and address violence. GBV, both online and on-ground, can be exacerbated due to various other factors including class, caste, sexuality, disability, race, ethnicity, religion, poverty, etc. and how power dynamics manifest in relation to them.

More feminist research that brings localised and embodied knowledge on autonomous infrastructure could create more ways to imagine, conceptualise and advocate for access that go beyond centralised, top-down, market-based and state-regulated forms of access.

Read the full report here.
Read the full report translated into Japanese by APC member JCA-NET here.
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