Delhi-based Anja Kovacs, founder of the Internet Democracy Project, on her recent works.
Gendering surveillance is your most recent project. What inspired its launch?
Our major concern is opening up the benefits of Internet for everyone, including the marginalised communities. Online surveillance is a big concern, but most people think government surveillance affects only law breakers. Women are among the worst affected with the digital age’s deepening scrutiny. Our aim is to reach out to more people and bring case studies to light. We don’t always work from a gender perspective, but we do always take a feminist perspective.
One of the case studies talks of the khap panchayat ban on the mobile phone. Are these blanket bans? Are they taken seriously?
Blanket bans in north Indian villages in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have not worked and that’s partly because people have aspirations of their own and they believe technology is an integral part; it isn’t just about status. The real concern is about the privacy of women with a focus on unmarried women.
So women in these villages are forbidden from using mobile phones?
Sometimes school or college girls manage to find a way to convince the family to let them use technology. But the concern is how women will use mobile phones or the Internet when they’re alone. Using computers at cyber cafes or laboratories is alright, but Facebook on their mobile phones is forbidden. The idea is to control sexuality by controlling mobile use. A pradhan we spoke to said, ‘What is Facebook for? It’s for love, for marriage and that’s why girls shouldn’t be on it.’
Access to the Internet must be a basic right but isn’t cyber safety, especially for women, a real concern in India?
The first question would be what is safety? I dislike the term. The underlying concept is fine, but it’s becoming a bit of an issue in these discourses where we’re faced with lists of don’ts and impractical advice. In India, the onus is so much on women to keep their reputation clear and the online safety discourse plays into that. We need to think much more in terms of creating spaces that empower everyone, learn to assess threat models and take calculated risks rather than aim for a perfectly safe online world.