The Internet, democracy and the feminist movement

A report by
Anja Kovacs


With both online censorship and surveillance dramatically on the rise worldwide, it is increasingly clear that we are witnessing a hollowing out not only of the empowering potential of the internet but also of democracy as a political system. To reverse these intertwined trends, they urgently require sustained and systematic attention. Feminists are uniquely placed to weigh in on these debates thanks to their rich insight in and long and intimate engagement with theories and practices of democracy. Feminists’ contributions to internet governance are essential if we are to prevent the empowering potential of the internet – which is real – from largely evaporating in mistaken policy choices over the next decade.

This report was originally published in ‘Critically Absent: Women’s Rights in Internet Governance‘ by the Association for Progressive Communications, South Africa, 2012.

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So far, feminists have not closely engaged with questions of how the internet is transforming our societies, or with the arenas where answers to these questions are being shaped. For example, in October 2011, I had the privilege of being part of a national consultation on the Indian women’s movement and technology. The meeting brought together seasoned feminists – all experts in the broad area of gender, science and technology – from all over the country. But when I asked how many people in the room had heard of internet governance’ and had some sense of what it might mean, only two of the over twenty participants raised their hand. When I then asked how many of them were internet users, everybody burst into laughter: they all were. This short interaction clearly brought out the lack of engagement of the women in the room with internet governance (as well as their good humour in acknowledging this). But this is hardly limited to the Indian feminist movement, nor just to feminists. Although many human rights defenders and other activists are internet users, they have shown relatively little interest in engaging with the arena of internet governance in a sustained and systematic fashion.

This is cause for both surprise and worry. It is by now widely accepted that the internet, and new technologies more broadly, are reconfiguring the fabric of our societies. Critical voices (perhaps most notably Evgeny Morozov’s1) have pointed out that the internet and democracy are not necessarily linked: that the internet can be used to strengthen dictatorships as easily as to improve democratic elections, to increase surveillance as easily as to enhance freedom of speech. But the consequences of this multi-faceted nature of the internet’s potential have mostly been examined for their impact under authoritarian regimes. What is important to understand is that the internet and the new possibilities it enables – both good and bad – equally affect democracy as a system, as a practice. Surely few were surprised that Reporters Without Borders included Belarus and Libya as countries under surveillance’ in its 2011 Enemies of the Internet’ report, but what does it mean that Australia found a place on that list as well? That when riots hit the country’s capital, UK Prime Minister David Cameron suggested a clampdown on social networking sites? That France has a law that cuts its citizens from the internet if they have violated copyright provisions three times, in clear contravention of the obligation states have to make the internet available and accessible for all as highlighted by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue?

What does the internet currently do to democracy in places where democracy as a political system has already been put into place? And if the internet irrevocably changes democracy, too, what does that mean for our struggles and visions for social change? It is high time that feminists started engaging with these questions. What, then, could be some of the entry points for feminists into these debates?


The changes that are being wrought to our societies by the internet and related technologies take place on two levels. First, internet governance frequently has a direct bearing on issues of core concern to feminism. For example, the internet, and new technologies more broadly, have made possible new ways of committing violence against women. Both intimidation and action can now be initiated from a distance. The possibilities for violating women’s privacy, blackmailing them, or unauthorised distribution of their images have increased dramatically2. Such threats are real and it is crucial to women’s well-being that actual instances of abuse are taken seriously and are responded to immediate and effectively.

Yet what does an effective response entail? While this issue has always divided feminists, in the past censorship of what were considered derogatory’ images of women was seen as an appropriate strategy to battle such representations by at least sections of the feminist movement. For example, in India, feminists were instrumental in getting the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, passed in the Indian Parliament. But if such strategies have always been controversial, in the radically altered communicative context provided by the internet they have simply become untenable.

For one thing, the efficacy of censorship is undermined by the ease and speed with which content can now travel: by the time an obscene picture has been taken down by Facebook, for example, it may already have been uploaded on various blogs and websites. Effectively removing content across the internet is, thus, a near-impossible task. In addition, as the internet has made it easier for people to make their voices heard, both a larger number and a far wider range of opinions are now freely expressed in the public sphere. For governments, it has thus become increasingly difficult to maintain the same levels of control over speech and content that they had earlier, and any efforts to retain such control will by necessity increasingly involve the active chilling of free speech on their part.

Such efforts should therefore strike terror in the hearts of anyone concerned with substantive democracy. But as feminists have remained aloof from the debate, it is precisely the protection’ of women and children that has emerged as a favourite justification of governments across the world to restrict the right to freedom of expression – or the right to seek, receive and impart information – online. And in the process, governments’ powers to control and curtail that right have often expanded across the board.

Let me give an example. In April 2011, a set of rules were issued in India to regulate the registration and management of cyber cafes and their users. The rules contain detailed prescriptions on the identification of users, making impossible the anonymous use of a cyber café, and on the maintenance of user logs, to be stored for a minimum of one year. They also lay out a set of rules for the design of a cyber café. For example, if the cyber café has cubicles, these shall not exceed four and a half feet in height from the floor level’. If there are no cubicles, the screens of all computers shall face the common space of the cyber café’. Moreover, any cyber café having cubicles or partitions shall not allow minors to use any computer resource in cubicles or partitions except when they are accompanied by their guardians or parents’. And every cyber café shall also display a board, clearly visible to the users, prohibiting them from using pornographic sites as well as copying or downloading information which is prohibited under law’3.

These detailed prescriptions may well contain the consumption of pornography in what could be argued are public spaces. But by not leaving such regulation to the market (and to differentiation among cyber cafes according to the different levels of privacy that their physical lay-outs provide, which has spontaneously emerged over the years), many of the capabilities that internet use can engender have been eliminated – or at least severely restricted. As a consequence of the new regulations, minors and adults alike can no longer enjoy any kind of privacy in cyber cafes. Thus, while it has been shown that the internet has become an important avenue for women to access sensitive information, which woman would look up information on support groups for lesbians in her area when she knows everyone may be watching her, particularly in a country where women’s sexuality is highly regulated? While the new rules may have been put into place to protect women, they also significantly undermine the potential of the internet to help women take greater control over their lives. It could even be argued that the rules do the opposite of what they intend – that they actually provide new avenues for the harassment of women, as cyber cafes are required to keep scanned copies of all users’ IDs, and thus of their details, on record, and are authorised to take and include in the record a picture of every user. Seeing that cyber cafes continue to be the most important internet access point in India4, these are tremendously worrying trends.

Discourses and practices related to online surveillance and security, while drawing on the protection of women for their justification, are also frequently used to support broader agendas that decisively work against women’s interests. In India, Google’s Transparency Report listed government criticism as the single most important ground for requests from the government for the removal of content between January and June 2011. Two hundred and fifty five out of three hundred and fifty eight items fell in this category. Only three items were asked to be removed for being pornographic5. Further, in December 2011 reports were leaked that Minister of Communications and Information Technology wanted large social networks in the country to pre-censor content. It soon became obvious that this, too, was at least partly driven by a desire to contain political criticism. At the same time, reports emerged claiming that new technologies were feeding a surge in political espionage’ by India’s Intelligence Bureau6. While the safety and security of individual citizens may be the official justification of censorship and surveillance measures, all this clearly begs the question of what is really at play here. Whose security and safety are these policies actually attempting to ensure? Feminist analyses and critiques of what is denoted by the term security’ in the internet governance arena are urgently required.

The lack of involvement of feminists in debates on content control is therefore problematic on many levels. It not only leaves uncontested implicit and explicit definitions of content that is harmful’ to women, but also, as I hope the above examples makes clear, allows for the uncontested emergence of a culture of online surveillance and control that ultimately will do little to empower women and may do them much harm. By allowing for broad-based restrictions on the use of technology, we may be helping to perpetuate myths that ultimately do not serve women.


While most feminists may agree that the above concerns are important, these are unlikely, however, to be equally relevant to every field of work, and for that reason they perhaps remain a weak ground to inspire greater feminist participation in internet governance. But the internet poses another challenge to democracy at present, and that is with regard to governance models in general. By not paying much attention to the question of what kind of world is being created through new technologies and new uses of technologies, we have created an environment in which many governments can talk about participation purely in terms of participation in top-down, usually government planned and initiated, projects. Thus, we see ample attention on government transparency and accountability. But these laudable concerns are not matched by equal attention for questions of citizen’s freedom of expression – an essential cornerstone of any democratic society. Implicitly or explicitly, what is being promoted here is not people’s empowerment through democratic participation, but a technocratic, patronising state – the Singapore model. And this affects all of us, whether we are online or not.

The lack of balance is perhaps especially true in the large parts of the Global South where access continues to be a major issue and thus can easily be dismissed as an elite’ concern. At times, in these countries, access to the internet and its benefits is curtailed by issues that are are not necessarily in the hands of their governments. For example, many measures in the area of intellectual property rights proposed by developed country governments have considerable impact on the access to knowledge of people in developing countries. Yet although such measures are designed to maintain pricing structures based on developed country income levels and standards of living, developing country governments are not able to counter them. In fact, through instruments such as bilateral trade agreements, the pressure on developing country governments to inscribe such measures into their own laws is increasing, effectively undermining the value internet access could have for most of the world’s population.

But governments of the developing world also carry responsibility for creating these imbalances. Thus, for example, the internet penetration rate in India remains disappointingly low, at around eight percent. This means that the important new possibilities for freedom of expression that the internet offers are withheld from large parts of the population. In sharp contrast to this, the surveillance measures that have become commonplace online and that are by and large quietly accepted as inevitable’ have been effectively exported offline: for example, India’s Unique ID, Aadhaar, allows the government to track the movements of people within its borders (including its large population of poor migrants) in ways that were unimaginable before. And the growing levels of surveillance and control contribute to a climate in which increasing pressures on freedom of expression may be acknowledged, but they are not questioned. By keeping quiet, we help create styles of governance that we have no stake in.

To some extent, it could be argued that the reluctance on the part of feminists to engage comes precisely from sensing and understanding these tensions and a consequent healthy scepticism as to what the internet as a medium really has to offer all of us. Refusal, then, becomes a strategy. Yet as I hope the above examples make clear, this is a counter-productive strategy. If technology is effectively rewiring many of the structures and practices we hold dear, it is essential that we try to direct these changes, to ensure that the outcomes support, rather than contradict, feminist visions. Moreover, while the directions internet governance is taking at present are problematic in many ways, it also offers – through the promotion of multistakeholder models of governance – spaces to experiment with new ways of doing. Can we afford not to be part of the solution?

  1. Morozov, Evgeny (2011). The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: PublicAffairs, p. 448↩︎

  2. Moolman, Jan (2011). Violence Against Women and ICT. Presentation made at the Internet Governance and Women’s Rights Workshop, Nairobi, Kenya, 24 – 25 September 2011↩︎

  3. Information Technology (Guidelines for Cyber Café) Rules, 2011↩︎

  4. Internet and Mobile Association of India and IMRB (2010). I‑Cube 2009 – 2010: Internet in India. Mumbai: Internet and Mobile Association of India, 2010, p. 16↩︎

  5. Google (2011). Google Transparency Report: India – January to June 2011. Last accessed 12 December 2011, www​.google​.com/​t​r​a​n​s​p​a​r​e​n​c​y​r​e​p​o​r​t​/​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​r​e​q​u​e​s​t​s/IN/. ↩︎

  6. Swami, Praveen (2011). New Intelligence Technology Feeding Surge in Political Espionage. The Hindu, 5 December 2011, http://​www​.the​hin​du​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​n​a​t​i​o​n​a​l​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​2687373.ece. ↩︎