The Feminist InternetDecodings
Internet culture is now a matter of social import. At a time when its structural inequalities are becoming apparent to the public at large, several voices have suggested integrating a more balanced vision.
The Internet is supposed to be the definitive public space, a forum for learning, speaking out, thinking and sharing. Last March, this view was challenged publicly by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, who observed that despite “all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division”.
In recent years, similar public statements and demands have been highly visible and many think it’s time to do something about changing attitudes towards the Internet by adding feminist principles (e.g.open source practices, the possibility of anonymity, the move towards decentralization and consent to personal data processing).
The feminist takes on the digital environment
At the end of 2016, former Wall Street analyst Cathy O’Neil published « Weapons of Math Destruction », sounding the alarm about “the mathematical models that pervade modern life – and threaten to rip apart our social fabric.” Attracting a lot of attention in the United States, the book came out at a time when trust in the algorithms that govern the Internet had already started to waver.
Three years later, an Amnesty International study of 288,000 tweets found that racism, misogyny and homophobia flourish on Twitter, one indication that the social media have aggravated online inequalities and abuse. In addition, the controversy over the choice of a female voicefor digital assistants like Siri, Alexa or Google Home has added to the overall feeling that technology is often developed with a pro-masculine bias.
This sentiment is borne out by statistics on gender representation in the tech sector. In its “Women in Technology Leadership 2019″ study, the Silicon Valley Bank found that only 40% of startups in the U.S., the U.K., Canada and China had at least one woman in a leadership position.
And the observation concerns the other scales of the company: while women represent 48% of employees in all sectors, they represent only 28% of employees in digital and 16% of employees in Tech (as developers, data scientists, etc.), according to Urban Linker.
A engaged shift towards digital economy
Five years after the first “Imagine a Feminist Internet” meetings, which gave rise to 17 “Feminist Principles of the Internet“, the ensuing conversation about access, governance, data confidentiality or anonymity largely inspired Code 2019, the annual conference on the Internet in the United States.
Former White House deputy chief technology officer Nicole Wong has repeatedly observed that the problem of the GAFA*AHs has less to do with size with the governance of the Internet and now Antonio Garcia Martinez and Jessica Powell, formerly senior executives at Facebook and Google, respectively, have asserted that a new wind of regulation is coming in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Within this same time frame, many individual and collective initiatives have been undertaken to make these little-discussed issues heard.
One of the most active communities is the Feminist Internet, which seeks to create emulation on web-related ethical issues. The collective is evolving towards brand consultancy, with two main objectives in mind: to focus more on creativity than on the dynamics of disseminating what is created and serve as evangelist in finding ways to decentralize power.
This trajectory has provided inspiration on several fronts, i.e. the planned publication of “Data Feminism“, a book militating for a new social contract in favor of more gender-neutral data; and, in South Korea, the work of Famerz, a group of women gamers against digital misogyny.
These concerns are also manifesting themselves on a different scale in the “Recode” movement, that if the code is a question of power, feminism can help us understand how it can be rethought.
Among the most active communities on this issue, there are organizations in the form of networks (Girls in Tech, Girls Who Code, Duchess France, Pioneers Paris …) now followed by 100% female training. After the Wild Code School, Rocket School and Simplon have just made it a matter of creating added value.
One advocate of this movement is also the global network Omidyar, which has put forward proposals addressing encrypted messaging issues and is seeking to “better manage disinformation and dangerous speech, while also protecting user privacy on messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal”. Other advances are visible on the corporate scene, especially at big companies. For instance, Marc Benioff, Chairman and co-CEO of the cloud computing company Salesforce, has just hired a Chief Ethical and Humane Use Officer.
Now that open source has become a key Feminist Principle of the Internet, the next revolution in business models seems to be holochain, “an open source framework for building fully distributed, peer-to-peer applications”. This framework gave rise to Holo, “a distributed peer-to-peer hosting platform for Holochain apps.”
Cover photo / Feminist Internet (UK)