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The digital society is evolving and shifting at a rapid pace and there are currently no global standards or regulations for protecting digital rights that are universally followed and upheld. In the face of this digital transformation, we find ourselves at a critical juncture where we have a concrete opportunity to shape and co-create the internet we want.

The Global Digital Compact (GDC) is a UN-led process that has the potential to create a long-term, human rights-respecting framework of principles for digital governance. “The GDC could play a key role in ensuring that the lessons learned from years of multistakeholder cooperation feed into future processes of internet policy, internet governance and global digital cooperation,” according to Paula Martins, APC global policy lead, adding that it can also contribute to “setting parameters for safeguarding multistakeholderism, transparency, inclusivity, dialogue and accountability on digital issues.”

To be relevant, effective and sustainable, this framework must adopt a human rights-based approach and be intentional about putting inclusivity at the centre of all recommendations. An intersectional feminist perspective is essential for addressing problems of inequality in technology, recognising that “women and people of diverse genders and sexualities are on the receiving end of the most harm from digital tech,” explained Emma Gibson, global coordinator at the Alliance for Universal Digital Rights (AUDRi).

APC has been working with members and partners to ensure that gender inclusion is a cross-cutting theme of the GDC. This has resulted in the drafting of 10 feminist principles for including gender in the GDC. These principles were discussed and developed in the lead-up to this year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) at a pre-event entitled, “Putting gender equality at the heart of the Global Digital Compact". The event was convened by APC, UNFPA, Alliance for Universal Digital Rights, Equality Now, Pollicy, Derechos Digitales, UN Women, Digital Rights Foundation and World Wide Web Foundation as a means to “refine agendas, build common ground and improve principles,” according to Kemly Camacho, co-founder of Costa Rica-based APC member Sulá Batsú, in order to develop a shared approach for ensuring gender equality is incorporated in a meaningful way in the GDC.

Speaking at the event, Amandeep Singh Gill, UN Envoy on Technology, stated, "The Global Digital Compact is a once-in-a-generation opportunity where we have the attention of leaders who are coming together for the Summit of the Future. If we mainstream gender at the GDC with a very strong feminist perspective and equality lens, then we have an opportunity to get the leaders' attention."

Following the pre-event, the feminist principles were highlighted during key sessions at the IGF. Paraguay-based APC member TEDIC noted that “the feminist principles were raised during an intervention from a civil society advocate in the high level panel on artificial intelligence, that allowed for a wider visualisation of the principles.”

In addition, the principles had an impact on key government officials like Eileen Donahoe, US State Department's Special Envoy for Digital Freedom, who praised the pre-event and affirmed during a panel that “we have to make gender a centrepiece,” and Julie Inman Grant, E-Safety Commissioner of Australia, who indicated that she had spoken with the UN Envoy on Technology about the importance of the feminist principles. “Because our conference happened before IGF, it really set up gender as a theme for the week,” Gibson commented. “We gave out copies of the feminist principles to people we met, including to representatives of governments and that allowed us to have those important conversations.”

How can civil society groups advocate for gender inclusion in the GDC?

At this stage the role of gender in the GDC is still undefined, which presents a strategic opportunity for civil society to apply pressure for its inclusion. It is a gap that we cannot afford to ignore. “Among the groups more severely targeted and impacted by digital violence, exclusion and inequality are women and gender non-conforming people,” explained Martins. “This is the lens we want to bring to the GDC – a gender justice lens that recognises how specific groups and communities experience and relate to digital technology, both as an enabler of rights, development and justice, but also as a space where structural and historical misogyny is replicated, amplified and perpetuated.”

Civil society groups have traditionally carried a disproportionate burden in advocating for gender equality, and the current work at the GDC is no exception. “There is a role for civil society organisations (CSOs) in both educating government counterparts on the feminist principles and how they apply in their national or regional context, but also then holding their governments to account to the women of the country during negotiations,” stated Alexandra Robinson, gender-based violence technical advisor of the technical division of UNFPA headquarters.

Civil society is uniquely positioned to exert influence on these processes not only through direct relationships with governments but also because “CSOs in the gender/digital space have compelling examples of the benefits and harms of digital tech, which can be really useful in helping governments to see why this is important,” explained Gibson.

To be effective in this advocacy work, collaboration is essential for building mutual support and resources, and avoiding fragmentation and duplication of work. “I think it is very important to join more strongly with the women's movement, which is so powerful. Spaces that are traditionally about women's rights should be spaces of alliance and joint work,” Camacho advised, encouraging advocacy through the strengthening of social and popular movements.

Martins’ offered a checklist of how civil society can engage with the GDC process:

  • We can mobilise pro-actively and discuss what we want from the GDC.

  • We need to – at the national level – push our states to be “gender champions” during the GDC intergovernmental negotiations in 2024 that will lead to an outcome document. The Principles can help us in this advocacy, providing clear reasoning concerning how gender relates to all the priority issues that have been defined for the document.

  • We can directly participate in the negotiation and drafting process – participate in consultation, present briefing and submissions, etc.

  • We can fight to ensure that the negotiation process is transparent, open and multistakeholder.

  • We can spread the word about this process and ensure that civil society participation is diverse, bringing the views of the many feminisms and their ideas, concerns and proposals.

How can the GDC push the private sector to shift toward rights-centred approaches?

Alongside the work of civil society, it is necessary for the private sector to take responsibility in adopting human rights-respecting approaches in the development, distribution and use of technology, and not settle for half-measures that are often thinly-veiled attempts to attract more users and consumers. “Big Tech and the digital industry in general are pushing for greater incorporation of women in the digital world and this puts pressure on current and future digital policies. But this push towards the incorporation of women is mainly due to the urgency to increase the number of consumers and close the deficit of human resources that technology companies have,” Camacho cautioned. “For this reason, it is urgent to reposition in the global digital agenda how to address the issue of women's participation in the digital society from a feminist and rights-based approach.”

Thanks to existing rights frameworks and mounting pressure from social movements, there is some evidence of shifting perspectives among tech companies, albeit often applied with minimal effort. “It is important to recognise that the private sector has made efforts in trying to mitigate these types of problematic scenarios in their ecosystems; still, there is room for improvement,” cautioned TEDIC.

Voluntary codes of conduct have been insufficient in adequately changing private sector models that prioritise profits over people. The GDC has potential to support and legitimise rights-respecting norms through the establishment of universal regulations for protecting digital rights. “The GDC may end up influencing regulation in countries across the globe – many, many countries are currently regulating different areas of digital tech and there is much need for guidance and positive examples that reinforce a rights-based and people-centered approach to regulation,” Martins explained.

Robinson echoed the need for regulation. “Clear, effective and enforceable regulation of the private sector against human rights standards and principles as well as strong systems of response and prevention must all be resourced and supported in order to see a shift in norms,” she noted.

What is next on the agenda?

The 68th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will take place from 11 to 22 March 2024, and APC and partners are planning a follow-up session at that time to continue the dialogue on gender inclusion at the GDC, take stock on work done so far, refocus priorities and explore connections between the GDC and other important processes such as the WSIS+20 review. “It's going to be an important forum to keep talking about the importance of gender equality and to bring more governments on board,” said Gibson.

Written submissions can still be presented to the GDC process until 31 December, before the start of intergovernmental negotiations that will lead to the creation of an outcome document to be adopted at the Summit of the Future. Although there is currently little information on the modalities for participation and how the process will be conducted, those interested in the process can review the website of the Global Digital Compact and APC will continue to share updates as the process continues.