Private Parts: Obscenity and Censorship in the Digital Age

Private Parts: Obscenity and Censorship in the Digital Age


By Subha Wijesiriwardena

“Sexuality could indeed be spoken of, spoken of a great deal, but only in order to forbid it.”
Michel Foucault (as interviewed by Bernard-Henri Lévy in 1977)

Earlier this year, the telecommunications minister of Bangladesh declared a ‘war on pornography’, blocking access to around 20,000 websites and banning TikTok, the Chinese-owned video production and sharing app. The move came after a petition citing ‘obscenity’ was filed by a civil society organization with the Bangladeshi High Court in November 2018. India followed suit, calling for a ban on TikTok over ‘pornography concerns’ in April this year, though the ban has now been lifted. In Indonesia, TikTok ran into major trouble when the government accused it of disseminating ‘pornographic’ and ‘blasphemous’ content.

But researchers in Sri Lanka have recently pointed to how TikTok is being used as a platform for performance and play by women[1]. Of course, it’s not the first time something that is being instrumentalized in the service of women’s expression, particularly women’s sexual expression, has been black-marked as dangerous and obscene. In fact, this is exactly how it goes.

Historically, content which expresses women’s desires or sexualities, or indeed any expression of desire and sexuality considered non-normative, has been first-up on the chopping block, labelled ‘obscene’. And it is not just governments who justify censorship by claiming ‘obscenity’. YouTube is just one of the major internet corporations who have come under fire for the censorship of LGBTQ+ content under restrictions meant to curb content considered pornographic or offensive. Restrictions on such platforms, which are meant to curtail material considered ‘sexual’ and therefore deemed harmful, have categorically been shown to unfairly affect LGBTQ+ content and content by women[2].

Historically, content which expresses women’s desires or sexualities, or indeed any expression of desire and sexuality considered non-normative, has been first-up on the chopping block, labelled ‘obscene’.

The link between anything considered ‘pornography’ and ‘harm’ has been made time and again. Indeed, the debate about pornography has been raging for decades in our own backyard — it remains at the root of a major feminist faultline.

In 1983, in the United States, feminist scholars Catharine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin were brought in to draft amendments to the Minneapolis city civil rights ordinance, as a response to growing concern about the city’s adult entertainment district. They wrote an amendment that opponents saw as a de-facto ban, articulating sexually explicit material and its production and sale, as a violation of women’s rights: “the sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted” as “a form of discrimination on the basis of sex.”[3]

It remains at the root of a major feminist faultline

Though the ordinance was struck down and later declared unconstitutional, this heralded the gathering of momentum of an anti-pornography movement.[4] On the other side, ‘sex-positive’ feminists tried to problematize the reductive narratives of ‘violence’, ‘harm’ and ‘exploitation’, claiming anti-pornography arguments authorized a censorial state to prohibit the expression of female sexuality, fundamentally ignored the fact of women’s agency and diminished the political significance of women’s sexual pleasure in a patriarchal world[5]. Largely, feminists still remain divided on how feminists should assess porn and how we understand it.[6]

In India, in a pre-internet era, where the Hindu right-wing and the secular women’s movement agreed on almost nothing, they came together in their fight against ‘obscenity’, when the release of the film Khalanayak (1993) and the film’s most popular song ‘Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai?’ (translating to ‘What’s behind the blouse?’) caught everyone’s attention[7]. A petition filed at the Delhi High Court which called for the deletion of the song from the film as well as a ban on audio cassette sales, stated the song was ‘vulgar, against public morality and decency’.


Obscenity: a Colonial Legal Framework

The language around ‘obscenity’ forms one of the key legal bases for censorship in many countries; the idea seems to originate from colonial-era laws around obscenity which aimed to criminalize sexual expression and sexuality-related material (which could include sexuality-related educational information) as it was considered ‘harmful’ to society. In many contexts, as we know, colonial criminal law went further, criminalizing aspects of sexual behaviour, even if done in private, deemed ‘unnatural’.[8]

Sexual expression is still widely considered ‘harmful’ to society, with no real proof, but not for a lack of investigation. With pornography, for example, innumerable studies have been done since the 1970s to investigate links between the consumption of pornography and harm. It turns out there is, to date, no conclusive evidence to show that this link can be made. Trying to make a causal link between pornorgraphy and harm has proven problematic not just empirically but methodologically as well, primarily because of a continuing lack of clarity and agreement on what is meant by ‘pornography’ and ‘harm’.[9]

Trying to make a causal link between pornorgraphy and harm has proven problematic not just empirically but methodologically as well

If we want to understand the real reach of these laws — that is to say, their ideological reach — they have to be considered as a sort of whole, a part of the same project, fundamentally underpinned by their shared goals to surveil, regulate and control sexuality, through censorship and criminalization, under the guise of ‘protection’, typically, of women and children. Women and children are still widely considered in need of protection from sexuality, particularly their own.

The State Still Cares

Governments continue to care a great deal about the internet being a medium through which sexual and erotic material can be made and shared. This has become a common justification for state regulation of the internet.

For example, India’s IT Act of 2008 has several clauses pertaining to obscenity and sexual material. Sections 67 and 67A both outlaw the electronic publishing of ‘obscene’ material or any material recording ‘sexual acts’ respectively (with no reference to consent), though Section 66E interestingly explicitly draws on the language of ‘consent’: “If a person captures, transmits or publishes images of a person’s private parts without his/her consent or knowledge…” Richa Kaul Padte writes, “In this respect, section 66E is a progressive clause that places the absence of consent at the heart of criminalising an act.”[10]

However, the principle of consent embedded in this particular provision does not, unfortunately, give us an accurate understanding of the Act as a whole. The Act remains protectionist in its approach at best, and operates on the premise that — as Padte writes — “if female sexuality is the culprit, public morality is the victim”.

As Padte writes — “if female sexuality is the culprit, public morality is the victim”.

Guardians of ‘Free Speech’

Governments of countries like China and Russia have gained notoriety for their sweeping internet censorship policies[11], while other forms of internet regulation, particularly by private actors, are relatively less talked about. As noted before, corporations and governments are seemingly equal partners in a crusade against sexual content. And yet corporations often seem above reproach.

Slowly, the tide may be shifting. Facebook has come under fire in a series of highly publicized Senate hearings in the US, which has led to increased scrutiny and debate about tech corporations responsibilities to users’ rights and human rights more broadly.

But it should come as no surprise that conversations about corporate internet regulation are slow to get airtime. A large part of the regular person’s internet experience is shaped predominantly by about four or five US-based social media platforms, owned more or less by about two or three US-based corporations. It has become almost habit for many of us to point to governments of Global South / non-Western nations as purveyors of censorship, rather than turn to the corporate giants who regulate our internet experiences every minute.

A large part of the regular person’s internet experience is shaped predominantly by about four or five US-based social media platforms, owned more or less by about two or three US-based corporations.

The crackdown on TikTok yields many interesting revelations in this regard: what is the role of geopolitics at play here, where a Chinese-owned app has come under censure for not conforming to the mostly West-determined ideas of what constitutes acceptable content? In addition, it raises the question of class and how class-based morality also finds its way into censorship policies: ‘Tiktok has found particular popularity in smaller cities and towns among first-time internet users who don’t speak English’ says an Indian commentator[12]. Sachini Perera and Minoli Wijetunge in their paper also address class, noting that Sri Lankan women users of TikTok were using the platform to subvert assumptions and ‘shifts norms around women’s sexuality, behaviour and class’.[13]

Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook), Twitter and YouTube (owned by Google) all have their own user guidelines (used by the thousands of content moderators), which form the bases for content moderation. Though titled things like ‘Community Standards’[14], these guidelines are but frameworks for censorship.

Furthermore, all content moderation, across all platforms, depends on reports from other users. Reporting objectionable content is encouraged. This exercise both cultivates a culture of community surveillance as well as exacts unpaid labour from platform users, a practice which commentators have come to call ‘outsourced content moderation’.


Private Actors, Private Parts

Unsurprisingly, all major platforms have shown great concern over what they consider sexually explicit material. YouTube’s policy states, ‘Explicit content meant to be sexually gratifying (like pornography) is not allowed on YouTube’. The Twitter Rules define adult content (which is disallowed) as ‘any media that is pornographic and/or may be intended to cause sexual arousal’. So, sexual arousal and gratification are unacceptable.


Facebook disallows adult nudity and sexual activity, the ‘sexual exploitation’ of both children and adults which includes but isn’t limited to breaches of consent, and explicitly disallows sexual solicitation between adults. Facebook also elaborately describes what parts of the body (genitalia, buttocks etc.) it considers sexually explicit by default. Though many of these policies seem to draw from the logic of the colonial arguments of ‘obscenity’, their language is deliberately different. But it’s important to remember that they are effectively setting out to perform the same function as those colonial-era laws, in the digital age.

These online platforms are effectively setting out to perform the same function as those colonial-era laws, in the digital age.

All major platforms have come under some scrutiny in relation to how these policies are affecting the lives of real people. The Free the Nipple campaign and its social media incarnation shone a light on the hypocrisy and sexism embedded in the blanket censure hich  women’s breasts online. But if the changes in some of the social media policies on nudity are a reflection of the nipple debate, then we can conclude that even when breasts emerged victorious in the struggle, they were only acceptable in non-sexual contexts[15]. Who’s fighting for our right to bear our breasts, with all their sexual connotations?

Instagram came under considerable scrutiny after it took down a series of photographs shared by now popular poet Rupi Kaur, the first of which showed her sleeping in pants stained by menstrual blood. These images did not, in effect, violate its policy on nudity at all. This was just one illustration of how women’s bodies, in general, and conversations about our sexual and reproductive health, are considered ‘sexual in nature’ and therefore ‘harmful’ by default.

On the other hand, Tumblr was for awhile seen as one of the mainstream internet’s most open spaces. Late last year, Tumblr came out with new rules which meant that “Posts that contain adult content will no longer be allowed on Tumblr”. ‘Adult content’ once again, includes genitalia and ‘female-presenting nipples’. Tumblr’s new policies were met with outrage from many users, and pushed sex-workers to other platforms.

Sex-workers have frequently raised the problem of structural inequality within social media platforms. Sex-workers are outraged at the ‘verified’ status granted by Twitter to the account of the fictional sex-worker/dominatrix, a marketing tool for the new Netflix show ‘Bonding’ — a blue tick they say is difficult to come by if you’re a real-life sex-worker. Instagram sparked outrage from sex-workers when it censored the hashtag #Stripper and related hashtags, which were being used by sex-workers, dancers and adult entertainers to organize, share work and gain new employment.

And who knows censure better than queers and/or trans folks? The Electronic Frontier Foundation has written in its report about LGBTQ+ communities and the corporate web, “policy restrictions on ‘adult’ content have an outsized impact on LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities.”[16]

And who knows censure better than queers and/or trans folks?

Clarity Haynes, a queer feminist artist, wrote extensively about the censure of her work and information about her work from multiple platforms including Facebook and Instragram. She wrote, “Whose nipples get censored? The rule is: women’s do, men’s don’t. But there is a spectrum of breasts, just like there is a spectrum of gender. There are infinite possibilities of what breasts can look like, and they can belong to men, women, and nonbinary people”.

Many saw the changes in Tumblr’s policies as a part of a chain of events compelled by the passing of FOSTA/SESTA[17] in the US last year: legislation which explicitly governs online sexual content under the ‘anti-trafficking’ umbrella[18] [19]. And because of the immense concentration of internet governance power in a few US-based corporations, laws passed in the US shape internet activity in most countries.

Increasing corporatization is also cited as a major reason behind the restrictions on ‘adult content’, such as what we have seen with Tumblr (now owned by Verizon). Queer and/or trans folks, kink communities, queer and other sex-workers and adult entertainers, sexual health educators (many are overlapping categories) across the United States are facing profound difficulties staying online amidst a growing trend of queer erasure online.


A luta continua (the struggle continues)

Rosa Luz is a trans activist and YouTuber in Brazil, who quite frankly states, “There are no other options. Once I disclose that I’m transgender, I can’t get any work. For me, my YouTube channel was the last option”. Rosa and queer artists in Brazil are struggling under the foot of an extremely conservative regime led by Bolsanaro (elected last year), but are not willing to give up the spaces they occupy online.

Agents of Ishq is a Mumbai-based project designed to ‘give sex a good name’. Agents of Ishq employ Bollywood-style imagery and symbolism in their courageous and frank takes on desire, sex, consent, queerness and more, in the form of music videos, podcasts and blog posts, shared via YouTube and other social media.

LGBTQ+ activists from Mexico to Bahrain are fighting at the frontlines of the struggle for digital rights, against repressive governments and disingenuous corporations, asserting the political importance of tools and methods such as anonymity and ‘fake profiles’, so that queer and/or trans folks can continue being online.

Around the world, LGBTQ+ activists, queer ‘sex-positive’ feminists, sex-workers, artists and educators are leading the charge against the increasingly complex webs of regulation and censorship of sexuality online, where corporate policies intersect with restrictive state law.

Between the increasing conservatism meted out by right-wing governments and leaders, and the near-complete corporate capture of our governments and our societies, we see interesting shifts in the power structure when it comes to the censorship and regulation of sexuality online and offline; at times, reinforcing the power-bases of some of the more traditional players (such as political leaders and lawmakers), and at other times, giving more control to new players (such as internet corporations). This kind of regulation has to then be placed within the context of ongoing attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including on the rights of those of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and those born with variations in sex characteristics.

We see interesting shifts in the power structure when it comes to the censorship and regulation of sexuality online and offline; at times, reinforcing the power-bases of some of the more traditional players (such as political leaders and lawmakers), and at other times, giving more control to new players (such as internet corporations).

It becomes increasingly important therefore to shift and realign our own focus in some ways — whether in activism and/or research, we have to now hold more than one kind of actor accountable, both independently of each other but also in how they work together. We have to be especially vigilant about attempts to regulate sexual expression because it may be framed in a language different from the language of censorship we are used to. We have to critically interrogate laws and policies, by state and private actors, equally, allegedly meant to ‘protect’. Similarly, we have to sharpen our focus on who is most adversely affected by these attempts to ‘protect’. We have to substantively examine where the harmful effects of censorship are most keenly felt.

The good news is that it is clear that, despite continuing double-standards being used in the service of the censure and regulation of women’s sexualities, queer and non-normative sexualities and sexual expression, many internet users continue to subvert existing frameworks. After all, various forms of sexual expression have survived many centuries and several ‘wars’, ideological and legal. In reality, censorship has never really won, but especially not in its battle against sex.

In reality, censorship has never really won, but especially not in its battle against sex.


In plain sight, on sexuality, rights and the internet in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka

In plain sight, on sexuality, rights and the internet in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka

A feminist framework at the intersection of Internet with sexuality and rights

How to make sense of what we experience? How to use evidence to transform? Which frameworks to use? And why a feminist framework? The first most simple and direct answer would be: why not?! EROTICS fits within the the Feminist Principle of the internet that “want to provide a framework for women’s movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology and to offer a gender and sexual rights lens on critical internet-related rights”.

In 2014 the Association for Progressive Communication – Women’s Rights Programme (APC-WRP) brought together 52 women’s rights, sexual rights and internet rights activists from six continents together in Malaysia to #imagineafeministinternet. Many at this meeting were part of the first iteration of the EROTICS global network that had led research on sexuality in seven countries. The questions raised at the meeting were – “What does it take to create a feminist internet? Is a feminist internet possible? How has the internet shifted the way we understand power, politics, activism and agency?” There was a need felt to have a political compass around the internet, on how to use and share, to build upon while contributing to movement building, proposing legislation, create new narratives.

What does it take to create a feminist internet? Is a feminist internet possible?

In 2015, a second convening expanded the Feminist Principles of the Internet after an intense year of local conversations, suggestions, insights. EROTICS network participated again, bringing its spirit, knowledge, evidences and practices. The conversation deepened and five clusters grouped 17 principle: access, movement, economy, expression and agency, which in 2017 during the third meeting Making a feminist Internet, became embodiment.

One of the elements of any political vision is the perspective, the s/place or the location from where we look and interrogate the world. Rosi Braidotti in her Nomadic Subjects talk about “a sustainable modern subjectivity as one in flux, never opposed to a dominant hierarchy yet intrinsically other, always in the process of becoming, and perpetually engaged in dynamic power relations both creative and restrictive”1. This becomes important in today’s world dominated by those living in the global north. What it underlines is that embodiment is not merely theoretical or rhetorical device but an important element of lived experiences and our shared politics. Quoting bell hooks in her Margins to Center:

“Living as we did—on the edge—we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked from both the outside in and the inside out. We focused our attention on the center as well as the margin. We understood both. This mode of seeing reminded us of the existence of a whole universe, a main body made up of both margin and center (hooks 2000:xvi)”.

It is a quote that resonates with understanding the internet – where margins and center are revolving because of very complex and intrinsic relationships.

A research, can be approached in different ways and with different purposes. If the purpose is transformation then it is important to set the ground. A good way to visualize online social construction with “gender norms, stereotypes and inequality that exist offline” is to use the Gender at Work framework.

Source: Gender at work framework for change

The four-quadrant framework distinguishes two polarities: (1) individual and systemic change, and (2) formal (visible) and informal (hidden) experience. Having said that, to generate changes all quadrants need to be engaged, is important to pay attention to the left hand quadrant to understand “the largely invisible and expensive-to-track areas of individual attitudes and collective norms and values that ultimately influence our choices, our attitudes and our actions. There are two dimensions to monitoring and changing individual attitudes that perpetuate gender discrimination on the internet (the upper left-hand quadrant). Firstly, there is the power of the internet to track and change the attitudes of those who actively promote or enable gender discrimination, both online and offline; secondly, there are the attitudes of women themselves, who can encounter both empowerment and disempowerment within the power of the internet”.

Firstly, there is the power of the internet to track and change the attitudes of those who actively promote or enable gender discrimination, both online and offline; secondly, there are the attitudes of women themselves, who can encounter both empowerment and disempowerment within the power of the internet.

Understanding and recognizing the existence of hidden normative experiences at individual and collective level is necessary to understand how and what obstructs change, how transformation moves from individual to collective awareness, then to consciousness and eventually leads to change in behavior and discourse. This is a way to acknowledge the existence of visible, invisible and hidden powers. But this is not enough because internet has its own super-power and cannot be dismissed. Following Jac sm Kee classification there are five layers of power relevant and specific to internet:

Structural power: Internet is about connecting end-users this tell us that access pose the issue of structural power. Who has the power to land the cables, the satellites, the drones? Who decide about the last mile, the costs of the services? Who has no say in tariff, kind of access broadband and flat rate vs data and wi-fi. It can enact very conservatively but can be very innovative if we think of the power to create community owned infrastructure that are outside the mainstream internet, that can stay off-grid or connect to other similar collective-owned infrastructures shaped by very specific local needs.

Discursive power: “Discourse is more material”2 than ever and internet gives us “the capacity to create our own truths. Our own knowledge. Have unknown histories and practices be collectively shaped and known. From indigenous communities to queer communities”.

If we think retrospectively it was very difficult to find women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), but nowadays there are timelines, stories, books, comics of women from all over the world innovating and contributing to this field. So that Ada Lovelace can be a Lego kit. The internet enables the “ability to participate in influencing discourse, shaping culture, which is arguably one of the most important shifts in power. Because it’s about what is invisible: our understanding, attitudes, beliefs, that then influences our practices.”

The internet enables the “ability to participate in influencing discourse, shaping culture, which is arguably one of the most important shifts in power. Because it’s about what is invisible: our understanding, attitudes, beliefs, that then influences our practices.

Economic power: the power of generating economic models and revenue, from the first ebay to the last start up. Here also we need to look at which kind of models are proposed. Capitalist, based on generating high profit and controlling an entire market as Amazon, or developing different economic models such as crypto-currency (bitcoins) with collective mining, elimination of traditional intermediary, or open and free source software where the technical solution, the code is open and, collective intelligence become the common pond for a mutual exchange between the individual and the community.

Embodied power: Internet and pleasure, internet as s/place to overcome limitations of mobility, accessibility from the simple creation of a mailing list, organizing of communities with disability to remote controlled sex-toys to erotics chats. Different ways of experiencing pleasure that troublethe notion of pornography itself: feminist porn awards that celebrates consent, good labour practices in the porn industry, etc.

Anonymity online makes the exercise of autonomy, agency and dignity more possible, allowing for people to explore to seek community, to push the envelop of respectability and of social norms. This is the story of many queer communities around the world. But body on or in the internet means data, and there areextensive national IDs projects and biometrics where individuals become what their data says about them. What is the implication of these multiple data sets, and what mechanisms available or what rights are there when errors are made? How does all this impact the lives of people?

Networked power: the last and the most celebrated, the one everyone recognize as the super-power of internet, the power of connecting and creating networks. Quoting Jac sm Kee “Most importantly, it connects us. Allows us from becoming weird atomized individuals to find others who are interested in, care about, concerned about the same things. Enables us to organise, have conversations, plan for collective action, take things to different spaces, make shifts across the different layers of power, occupy different spaces. Because the characteristic of the internet, is essentially one that is networked. It is about connections. And the freedom to make connections, towards the shift and change we collectively believe in, is an important one”.

The characteristic of the internet, is essentially one that is networked. It is about connections. And the freedom to make connections, towards the shift and change we collectively believe in, is an important one.

To transform the internet, to generate the changes necessary to intersect sexuality, rights and the internet we use the feminist principles of the internet (FPIs). Their function is to give to researchers, activists and users a compass or a reading key. The five main clusters of access, expression, participation and building of movements, economy and embodiment help in orientating ourselves, but the principles can be combined and referred to each other. Consent read along with access to infrastructures is already providing an understanding of who is the subject and what is meaningful and relevant access. Further in the introduction some of the principles are named and linked to specific point made by the researcher, but the best way of using them is using them as spectacles or magnifying glass while reading the research, letting them resonate in the experience of the reader, the personal and the collective.

The research: India, Nepal, Sri Lanka

“How women’s rights, sexual rights and LGBTQ advocates, search for information, amplify their own messages and, respond to challenges and threats they are confronted with from inside and outside their communities?”

That is the overarching question of all EROTICS explorations from India, to Brazil, Lebanon, South Africa, Indonesia, Turkey, the US and now Nepal and Sri Lanka.

When looking at the use of internet within a larger community new questions emerge. Communities are not homogeneous, they can appear homogeneous only to distant, external eyes. The recognition that discrimination, exclusion, marginalization is not a one-color blanket is not a surprise but, in research, assumptions need to be verified or addressed when challenged.

So apart from confirming the existence of what Sara Hlupekile Longwe call Patriarchal Belief:

“The system of belief that serves to legitimise male domination and gender discrimination. It relies on patriarchal interpretations of biblical/religious texts, beliefs in male biological superiority (sexism) claiming that the unequal gender division of rights and duties is either natural (biological), or God-given, or too difficult to change because they are irretrievably embedded in culture”.

what do the reports confirm and/or establish?

Looking at the subjects that compose this vast community of women’s rights, sexual rights and LGBTQ activists, the first consideration is about intersection: how within these communities people define themselves trough a constellation of other identities. These fluid and shifting constellations of identity show how individuals are not a single point but three dimensional mosaics – , and this is what the feminist legal scholar, critical race theorist, and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw named as intersectionality. Intersectionality is an open call to give visibility and to question powers and privileges. Intersectionality is also a feminist political practice of recognizing or its obverse denouncing, and transforming. If we do not understand this, the risk is that we will have a new aesthetic of privileges that limit itself to the description and retire when transformation ask for reconsideration of personal position of privileges, or generate unease. It also means to give significance to what hide in plain sight.

To address intersectionality to the trinomial of sexuality, rights in_on the internet is essential. EROTICS uses an overall rights framework to unpack, organize or cluster these relations around the feminist principles of the internet (FPIs): access, expression, participation and building of movements, economy and embodiement. And we look at both, the relation of privileges and power between the society at large and the community of women’s rights, LGBTQ and sexual rights advocates and the relation of privileges and power within the members of this specific community.

If is generally true that we are all equals but some are more equal than others, is also true that within a community that faces discrimination there are also various degrees of inequality . If we do not accept the challenge to call out the existing privileges within communities too, we risk to misinterpret data and as consequence hold, halt the transformation we would like to see happening as a result of our politics. So, EROTICS research practice is to bring in plain sight all the visible, invisible and hidden intersections and dimensions from the cross-point of sexuality.

We knew already and the researches confirmed the themes of access, both to infrastructure (connectivity) and to information, sexual expression as creation of content and freedom of expression, privacy and consent, obscured by an exhausting preoccupation of indecency, morality and obscenity which translate in censorship and diffused self-censorship practices to resist the general social hostility, peer and public surveillance ,that is almost impossible to pin down.

Emerging but not completely spelt out is the whole question of data.Bits of the selves transferred, stored , exposed, meshed up and morphed. Bits that need to be controlled and secured at continuous risks of being lost, robbed. From this arises the fear of many people of extortion and blackmail even when giving devices for repair, while relying heavily and almost exclusively on the cloud of private networks on social media and especially hookup and dating sites. The research also points out that people are at the mercy of unclear legislations with lack of accountability both from institutional, local and global services providers. All the research is about data, the joy, the trouble, the politics, the necessity of ensuring ownership, preventing harm, asserting and respecting freedom, ensuring privacy, safety.

Use and perception of internet: a story to be told many times

Looking at use is a perfect opening to understand power and technology and start appreciating the complexity: use, access, power, discourse are interlinked to each other. These in turn promote business, innovation and obviously technology and further innovation. It is a cycle, more like a sphere where dimensions are not linear anymore but 3D, in a continuum that spiral and spiral, again and again to the indefinite or the infinite.

There is no binary between internet and life – it is not onground, and then a vacuum, and at the end of it the virtual. There is a spectrum instead and along the spectrum there are users. The spectrum too has to be understood as multidimensional because of the intersectionality, the identities assumed or projected / mirrored on each other or against / vs. each other. For this reason going back to use is necessary and important – it is to situate the self/selves at a cross-point. And it is important also to call it a cross-point instead of a point of entry, because of the many relationships that each specific point is embedded in . Some of those cross-points look very material: cables, devices, data, some other are of a different fabric, the fabric of a society, a language, a gender, more genders.

Access to the internet is far more complex that connectivity, or better to say we should never reduce connectivity to a deployment of the last mile cable or antenna. Connectivity, to bring meaningful access calls immediately for an understanding of who has the power to create, control and develop the infrastructure. Connecting via broadband, or through a phone, on pre-paid or post-paid data packages, on public wi-fi tells us a lot about the power of the user, their embedded privileges or none. The research tell us women, LGBTQ and sexual rights advocates are on the internet. They do use it and with intention: an intention of justice but also an intention of love, curiosity, pleasure. They are ready to invest to ensure their access but they do not have equal power to ensure the that it is stable, qualitative, fast and safe.

Individuals online also provide personal data, identity data that give them the rights to own, register, pay online. Transactions of this nature make each and everyone very visible and confined by legal and social norms. Trans women and trans men has not the same ease or possibility to have their own personal access to internet cause their given names and genders do not respond to their lived experience and so they are confronted both by legal contractual norms and social stigma. They often have to rely on friends, relatives, or find ways around which implies precariousness and a form of dependency based on unequal powers. Women and girls face similar challenges because of their gender and the fear around their sexuality that entitle parents, husbands, family and relatives at large to question their rights to have they own devices. This puts them in a precarious situation of being constantly monitored by family, the most effective surveillance mode, and this in turn often leads to self-censorship. Regardless of this barriers and the relative privileges of gay men – LBT advocates and women from less privileged class/castes access the internet and use it intensively for personal and social purposes.

Lines of tension

To be online is part of what people do. It is considered essential, and women’s right activists see in the online space a public arena for their quest for justice. There is no doubt it is also a dangerous space with its specific risks but not intrinsically different from the known dangers of patriarchal society. The pace is certainly different, but is not something absolutely new similar to moving from a remote place to a busy hyperconnected one.

The research highlights and shows lines of tension. What emerges from the research is that expression around sexuality accelerates reactions. Talking, living, expressing one’s sexuality except the one of heterosexual men, is constantly under scrutiny, so that the curiosity, the pleasure has to continuously account for strategies and choices. Nothing is forbidden but everything, potentially, has a price, a label, a backslash. Lines of tension, polarizations, different perspectives that translate into holding back, silence, not antagonizing, and not using the online space to advocate for sexual expression as an integral part of the freedom of expression. All of it and the many nuances and explanation participants provide, come up in many places of the EROTICS research.

It is not an easy finding to elaborate but it is a necessary one. There is a separation, a gap, a rupture between self identified feminist and women’s rights advocates. From one side there is a difficulty of understanding the wholeness of the internet within the world, as intrinsic component of human interaction and on the other side there is the difficulty of recognizing the same legitimacy and wholeness to initiatives articulated online in contrast with the relevance reserved for those onground.

The rupture is also here multi-layered, once more and once again intersectional. There are women’s rights established professionals often recognized leaders of formal institutions. And there are individual activist, often referred to as online activists as if deprived of touchable body, or free radicals. The latter have been described by Jac Sm Kee as “new and emerging actors who are part of feminist organizing, but remain outside of the more familiar format of organizations. Some of them are content creators, some are social media activists, some are part of interest-driven collectives, some are feminist techies, and some are what I like to call “free radicals” – nodes that connect between formal organising and informal networks who act as key bridge builders and interlocutors of different actors and different spaces”. Some of them are what the internet recognize and celebrate as influencers, some are just emerging and becoming visible because of a trending hashtag.

There are also advocates belonging to dominant casts or class and advocates from lower class, minority groups. And gender conforming individuals versus gender non conforming individuals. Other factors that play a role include age, education, numbers of foreigner languages spoken, and so on.

Those privileges and concomitant power are all very real, material and hide in plain sight but the divergence named is about legitimacy and supremacy of onground vs online. What else are our bodies online than material data of the same selves effectively and destructively linkable to our shared/owned devices homes, footsteps, way of walking, faces?

So internet has debunked some privileges. Technology, with its own bias, expensive and precarious, still gives to the individual the opportunity to express oneself for pleasure or politic in visible-to-others-spaces. I refrain from labeling them as fully public since often the s/place where interaction happen are walled gardens owned by private corporation. What is important, is the transaction to access those s/places has already happened and is not tangled with legitimacy or permission to have a say, or receive a voice by the established professional in the women’s rights movement. Sexual expression online become the divider of the women’s / feminist movement. What truly happens is that diversity of voices, tones, pace and styles occupy the same space in a by-default two-ways horizontal communication and the antagonism onground / online tell us of many constraints but also of privileges, powers accountability, strategies and eventually transformation.

Sexual expression online become the divider of the women’s / feminist movement.

Both the established professional and the explorers are fluid characters embedded in the same patriarchal infrastructure and their particular privileges as well as their struggles are held in the power of the dominant patriarchal infrastructure. The kind of s/place where this “clashes of silences, lack of sorority, judgmental and preaching practices” happens is a space that is fed by accelerated conversations and dualistic antagonism. The internet of likes and follows has only one binary: the against/for of viral escalation that brings profits to its owner.

We must add that between womens’ right advocates exist big, unresolved differences on how to approach sexuality in a patriarchal world. It is not difficult to see how the existing divergence of these assumed politics, going from sex-positive to anti-pornography, are exacerbated and exploited by the specific technological architecture_design of social media. Backlashes are hosted, welcomed, promoted and exacerbated by those platform built on click-revenues business models that prefer simplification over complexity, virality and velocity over deepening and slower pace. Still, because of the internet, different narratives and conflating discourses are brought alive in the visible space and augmented, amplified and able to reach out potentially to any other self identified women’s rights, LGBT and sexual rights advocates.

Backlashes are hosted, welcomed, promoted and exacerbated by those platform built on click-revenues business models that prefer simplification over complexity, virality and velocity over deepening and slower pace.

The right to sexuality in_on the internet is a way of expressing the self and represent at the same time exploration, affirmation, resistance and transformation. We all need to understand it and stand by it. Support should not be denied and should be the political practice of any advocate. And this is when a feminist perspective of intersectionality, solidarity and transformation helps to orient ourselves in the noise generated by the overwhelming horizontally, participatory conversations enhanced and amplified on_in the internet.

For a dialogue the s/place of internet need to be integrated, enriched and not limited or concentrated on social media. Deep conversations require far more flexible s/places to accommodate the different pace of the participants to the conversation. They need respectful and ethically built s/place to host dissent and provide the necessary privacy avoiding the performance and per-formative modality privileged by social media. Internet is a terrain of freedom and this is unequivocally shown throughout the research. It is a s/place of learning in the privacy of personal searching, moving trough languages, resources and peer-to-peer conversation. Internet is a s/place of playfulness, of detachment from the given to move toward the chosen. This is established once more by all the concern around FB fake profiles and the question posed by respondent and researchers: which handle/profile is fake and which is true? And for whom the authentication (the famously known real name policy of FB) works? Is it a business trick to get better quotation for shareholders cause only real customers can bring real profit? And is not this also very vague and more and more irrelevant for a world that is detaching printed moneys from digital and financial transactions in favor of cryptocurrency from Bitcoins to Monero, from Yota to Ehterium?

Internet is a s/place of playfulness, of detachment from the given to move toward the chosen.

Living dangerous ordinary lives

One thing that is clear is that online avenues of freedom are constantly under threat. Sexuality on_in the internet counts on armies of vigilantes set to the task of ensuring family honor, religious tradition or nationalism . Patriarchy with its arsenal of control over female and women’s bodies, stigmatization and persecution of homosexuality, obstinacy to sanitize, standardize, simplified male / female in a binary representation is the norm, counter-discourse the brilliant, inspiring and searched exception.

That’s why it is important to understand gendered and sexualized experiences of lesbian women in Sri Lanka to see how the awareness of surveillance permeates their online participation and embodiment. What emerge, within the acknowledging of the many constraints, is refreshing as it shows fluidity, ability to change, transform and confront. There is acknowledgement that Facebook, the most popular and populated space online, is not amicus i.e. impartial, but is a s/place of surveillance. Of the surveillance of the system, of the family and of public, and an awareness of the self, of seeing and being seen, understanding reputation risks, and the prudent pushbacks and steps to acquire autonomy and personal voices. It is all about hacking, from exploiting the privacy setting in any possible way to ensure unwanted family members are blocked from seeing , to create hierarchy of seeing and not seeing, to confine to specific posts / views to open it up totally. There is discontent, and tiredness of having this mind-sett of looking for the backlash, for what can happen, what can be said, who can be harmed. There is care but also unbearable pressure that push to ask for “delinking” of content production and recognitions online. There is the expectation of fun with a solidarity approach towards the sharing of self-taught tactics, tips and way to be more safe within the FB machine. All is embodiment including the prudence. It is a vindication of agency, it a way of reclaiming a different narrative instead of the defeat of self-censorship.

It is a vindication of agency, it a way of reclaiming a different narrative instead of the defeat of self-censorship.

All reports, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India tell us about the many lines of tension that formalized afterwards in threats, censorship and surveillance practices of different weight, from different actors. These exist everywhere, we knew it and the research was not looking for a sensational discovery but more for an understanding of its formation, dissemination, efficiency and effectiveness. It is true that norms to be cogent, to work need to be perceived as actual by community members themselves. But it is also true that when norms are part of formal regulation and legal framework, then to remove them there is a need of new tides to rise, relegating such laws and norms to archives and history.

Social networks remain the difficult sea that women’s and sexual rights activists have to navigate, with the tools they are able to get, even though harassment and outing are a common experience for majority of respondents. From awkwardness and discomfort, to harassment and violence there is a very tiny line. Articulating one’s own sexuality or taking a position around sexuality is entering a perilous sea where attack and revenge can be enacted any moment. And this is a gendered, sexualized and raced experience as shown by the 88% of Nepal respondents .

Decency, morality, obscenity or the alienation of your own persona for the greater good

Looking at the “mainstream” world from the perspective of sexuality is a game changer. Sexuality is attached to pleasure or sexual orientation , but even now carries discomfort and stigma, and is used with caution. I say mainstream as a place of power, not necessarily as a place of majority. In the world the majority struggle to have their voice heard. It is the privileged minority that scream and cover everyone else voices.

Sexuality, because of sex at its root is regarded as a subject ‘to be handled with care’ a slippery floor, an unstable sort of element that can explode and create trouble any time.

Sexuality as excess, as indecency, lack of taste, immorality, obscenity, perhaps even blasphemy. All very subjective terms, that can be understood and experienced with infinite nuances. But which also must be located historically and contextually within the geopolitics of power, control and subjugation. The hegemony of cultural white western European colonialism that was then reinvigorated as north American imperialism but also the hegemony exercised locally by dominant elites, ethnicity, religion, race or caste on its own population.

On the origins of obscenity and classification

For all these reasons it is important to reflect on the origins of obscenity and all the definitions, and classification that surround the word and how it acts upon sexuality. One of the finding of Guavas And Genital is that unclear, stereotypical and biased definition and classification are used by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data to classify cybercrimes. In their study, POV researchers noticed how cybercrimes were classified into a system of “motives”. . In 2014, for the first time in the NCRB’s history, a new category of suspect was introduced: the sexual freak. That very same year, the NCRB classified 163 individuals as sexual freaks”.

A new category of suspect was introduced: the sexual freak.

Similarly in Sri Lanka where obscenity, profanity and public performance laws such as Obscene Publications Act are used to control, censor and criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and “acts of gross indecency”. Where classification on public web-sites could help destigmatise and offer verified information on sexuality and sexual orientation, but these remain generic not intended to help people, offering “limited perspectives of the public health framework, which has cemented layers of stigma and discrimination, especially through the close association of LGBTQ Sri Lankans with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.”

The spectrum of meanings highlights when some of these meanings and associations originate from a specific view of the world and the related bias. Until then, their domain remains incredibly vast and so we saw how decency, morality and their linkage to obscenity and public interest travel from colonial time, permute to present time and there, from onground realities through cables and wires move online in an indissoluble continuum. Decency, morality and obscenity are not just floating, they are attached to very specific representation of bodies, usually female. Sexual expression again and again is at the center, but what we discover is that it has become a simulacrum, that answer to very specific political project of silencing dissent.

Holding ground while building momentum for policy changes

Women’s rights, LGBTQ and sexual rights activist are on the internet because it belongs to them. Internet is one of the s/place of their personal lives as well as the site of their campaigns, activities. They are constantly searching, learning, connecting and networking while producing, sharing advocating. And all this in a continuum of personal and collective strategies, that are shared, re-shared, remixed, mashed up and shared again in a peer-to-peer transmission, sometimes a viral one. Even as onground or embodied strategies are necessary, vital and brilliant but they are not enough. The system perpetuates discriminatory law, originated in a colonial time and then re-appropriated by dominant elites, and these laws have their foundation in very vague and subjective terms such as obscenity, morality, prurience. This vagueness is also transferred into the new legislation around internet giving higher and unrestricted powers. Strategies focusing on amplification of voices and creation of alternative narrative are not enough. This is a moment that asks for engaging with the formal, the institution and use the evidence to create new policy which will reform bad law and inform new ones.

Policy work is delicate, sophisticated and long that’s why is important for users to move from being ‘customers’ of services to be netizens, citizens of the internet and address the functioning and interconnection of the overall infrastructure in its continuum of cable, servers, regulations and content. Policy is the necessary scale up of resistance, it is what will ensure that the right of any minorities be equal in front of the law and that the exception can be constitutive of the norm.

Policy is the necessary scale up of resistance.

‘Disrupting the Binary Code: Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankan’s Online’ (Study Launch)

‘Disrupting the Binary Code: Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankan’s Online’ (Study Launch)

Disrupting the Binary Code: Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankan’s Online, a research study looking at sexuality and ICT’s was launched recently. As part of the EROTICS South Asia Network, (short for exploratory research on ICT’s and sexuality), the study was conducted in partner with the Association for Progressive Communications. The EROTICS research, unpacks the ways in which sexual minorities in Sri Lanka harness their rights on the internet.
The first Chapter of the research, Virtually Queer: Human Rights of LGBTQ Sri Lankans in the online space, by Paba Deshapriya and Michael Mendis, examines the landscape of ICT policy and sexual rights in the country. It provides a broad overview of the socio-political environment in which LGBTQ Sri Lankans live. The second Chapter of the study, Not Traditionally Technical : Lesbian Women in Sri Lanka and their use of the online space, by Dr. Shermal Wijewardena and Subha Wijesiriwardena is an analysis of how Lesbian women engage with the online space. This section brings to light the gendered and sexualised experiences of Lesbian women’s online engagements.

Against the backdrop of the criminalisation of homosexuality in Sri Lanka, which subjects the LGBTQ community to various forms of discrimination by the state and society, this pioneering study looks at how freedom of expression online can contribute to breaking taboos and amplifying the voices of sexual minorities in Sri Lanka.

At the launch a panel discussion was held with the researchers together with the research reviewers. Following the presentations on the findings of the research, there was an open discussion with audience members comprising of women’s rights and human rights activists along with members from the LGBT community from areas such as Colombo, Katunayake, Galle, Puttlam and Jaffna.


Interview with Women’s Media Collective, Sri Lanka: About lesbian tutorials and other strategies

Interview with Women’s Media Collective, Sri Lanka: About lesbian tutorials and other strategies


By Shubha Kayastha

mage source: Shubha Kayastha (sketch by participants in a sexuality workshop). Title: freedom of thought. Description: Art work showing different way in which one can access knowledge and enjoy sexual rights.

Shubha Kayastha interviewed research team including Sanchia Brown, Programme Officer at Women and Media Collective (WMC) Sri Lanka and Coordinator of EROTICS, Sri Lanka; Subha Wijesiriwardena, a writer and a blogger working on gender and sexuality project in WMC and also associated with Internews in a project which supports Freedom House which looks like strengthening local LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer) groups in Sri Lanka; and Paba Deshapriya who has been working at The Grassroot Trust around the issue of sexual reproductive health and rights, HIV and gender based violence. The team also comprised Shermal Wijewardhana and Micheal Mendis who were not part of the interview. The team conducted research on use of internet and online platforms by LGBTIQ, and published a report on the basis of the research based on survey among 85 respondents carried out in English, Sinhalese and Tamil; desk review; key interviews and Focus Group Discussion (FGD). The study is in two parts first part: 1) human rights of Sri Lanka LGBTI and 2) is on use of online space by lesbian women.

Shubha Kayastha (SK): Could you tell me why the focus of the research is LGBTIQ?

Sanchia Brown (SB): The research was conducted based on the gaps found in existing research on sexuality and internet rights. There isn’t much research conducted which focuses on the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka and how they use the internet.

Subha Wijesiriwardena (SW): In terms of the timing with relation to LGBTI rights in the context of wider socio-political context in Sri Lanka, we believed that in 2015 with the new regime, there is some hope for the new government to be more progressive. Civil society has been consulted on many fronts, including the drafting of constitution, drafting transitional justice mechanisms, and LGBTI groups did their submission in both the processes, specifically looking at inclusion of a clause around sexual orientation, gender identity and expression especially in relation to inequality , in fundamental rights chapter and transitional justice mechanism. There was also resistance from various sections inside the government and their broader constituency. Since last year the conversation has been in public as well, so this research is very timely.

SK: You mentioned that LGBTI community are being involved in various policy making process, however you still have penal code in Sri Lanka. So given the legal scenario, how is the situation of LGBTI people?

Paba Deshapriya: In terms of legal framework in Sri Lanka, there was a hope that the issues around LGBTI will be liberalized with the regime change, but we have penal code 365a and 365d that criminalizes homosexuality mostly in its interpretation. It is still vague, and even the LGBTI community isn’t sure if these laws criminalize them, because it only talks about ‘unnatural sex’ or ‘carnal intercourse’ which is termed as ‘against the nature’, and this is being interpreted as anal sex assuming only homosexuals have anal sex. We also have ‘cheat by personation’ and ‘vagrancy ordinance’ acts.

On behalf of LGBTI people, the recent ‘gender certificate’ rule by Health ministry in which one can get identity card on the basis of their preferred gender identity, however their birth certificate is amended or changed, they put a seal saying ‘sex changed’. In addition, they get judgmental and discriminatory treatment from the local governmental offices. Despite the changing laws, societal attitude towards LGBTI people isn’t changing.

SW: focus on the issue is mostly from medical perspective and not from human rights perspective. In addition to that, the work around LGBTI is male centric through HIV and public health related programs.

SK: How is the scenario in Sri Lanka in terms of LGBTI and gender non-confirming people using internet and online spaces to explore and express their sexuality?

PD: The last regime didn’t let anyone and LGBTI people to exercise their freedom of expression, which also contributed to the closing of one of the leading LGBTI organization, Companions of Journey. Similarly, another organisation Dust had to evacuate from their office who used to get inquiry calls from Presidential office. Thus with the change in regime, we wanted to see how freedom of expression of LGBTI has changed. Using online space to express themselves, but r we aren’t able to use it to its potential. During the research it was found that the online space is not much utilized for expressing one’s sexuality through mediums like blogs, except for the personal messaging. One reason could be because people are not comfortable or are scared to use online space openly. Some marginalised groups are using online spaces for different purpose, for e.g.: sex workers use Emo to find their clients, young gay people are getting to know about gay parties through Facebook messages or WhatsApp, some people are able to find romantic partner through online platforms.

SK: What was your perception towards importance of online spaces for such marginalized groups? Did the research participants share anything around this?

SW: It is very clear that it is an important space. One of the things that the study talks about is to construct identity including use of anonymity as part of self-expression. Women participating in the research also spoke about surveillance, and it is important to talk about gendered surveillance at both family and state level. In addition, the shrunken democratic spaces that we have in Sri Lanka gives online platforms even more values. Even in the current situation, we have examples of state trying to control online speech. It has been happening for a while but Colombo is just realizing it, however there has been continuous militarisationin North and North East for a while. Recently, someone posted a photo of a government office online and the state was trying to find out who it was.

SB: The study also mentions how the LGBTIQ community has been able to access information before and after the internet, which is quite interesting. A research participant mentioned how it was difficult to find out information on homosexuality and he would go to the library for information to find out if he was ‘normal’. He shared how he is able to get more information because of the internet. Beside him, even the second part of the report shares how women are able to obtain and share information on social media for LGBTIQ activism and advocacy purposes.

SK: Given the state is trying to control online spaces, in what way do you think that has or it might affect LGBTI people in Sri Lanka?

SW: The government is including civil society in formulating policies, however there could be some level of manipulation that might be taking place where civil society isn’t given what they are asking for.

PD: In the beginning of the current government regime, we saw some progressive changes, however it has changed. The last government was against LGBTI community and abortion, but this government is not. Even then there is a lack of enthusiasm around repealing the laws against homosexuality because people are fine with it.

SK: In the research report, it does speak about online harassment towards LGBTI community. Could you please highlight what were the findings and issues?

SB: The study looked at the adverse online experience including online violence and a majority of research participants had experienced online violence in the form of harassment, bullying, verbal abuse, misuse of posted content and photographs, etc. In addition, lesbian women felt that being under surveillance by family members restricted them for expressing their sexuality online.

SW: It was also interesting to find that women had their own strategies against surveillance by family which we have light-heartedly called ‘lesbian tutorial’ in the report. They learn about privacy setting and other strategies from each other. They were informed about surveillance and strategies to use.

PD: Through focus group discussion and survey we found out that perpetrators of offences against LGBTI are mostly their friends or those who know them or family or ex-partners who already knew about their gender and sexual identity. There was a recent case of murder of trans-person in Dambulla. Online space is just a reflection of what happens in physical world.

Online space is just a reflection of what happens in physical world.

SK: How concerned do you think LGBTI people are around digital security or if it is a very new area in Sri Lanka at the moment? What were some of those strategies they were using, like privacy setting of social media platforms or others?

SB: People know about securing their profiles. In addition to privacy settings that Facebook offers, they were using some of their own strategies by consulting each other when they would need for their safety and security. However, language plays a role as well. As Sinhalese and Tamil are the commonly used languages in the country, Facebook is in English and has the option of Tamil . Either way converting local languages into English or vice versa is not easy.

SW: They would be concern about their profile however awareness around the politics behind data doesn’t exist even among the activists. None of women participants in the research, including the activists had been to any digital security trainings. We have criticized traditional approaches to digital security, which are mostly tech centric and intimidating.

PD: There is very little knowledge among people on what is the internet, their understanding is limited to their relation with their gadgets. Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team 2015 has data on types of online victimization, and this suggests an increase in cyber exploitation and violence in Sri Lanka, especially around the use of social media. 2850 out of 2967 are social media related incidents. In 2016 2200 out of a total of 2341 incidents are social media related. The government data shows that most of the cases reported are on social media and out of them most of the incidents could have been prevented if people were able to setup privacy setting. They are not aware about encryption of data or how the internet works. Computer literacy is very low in Sri Lanka, most of the internet users are using it through phones.

SK: What are the alternative ways of providing knowledge on digital security in a non-threatening ways when it comes to marginalized groups like LGBTI?

SW: The Feminist principles of Internet does provide an approach to be more accessible and meaningful. The fundamental idea is that, technology belongs to you. So if you provide sense of this ownership to people and then talk to them about safety and security, that would be a better way. This will also shatter the power structure within the discourse of technology.

The fundamental idea is that technology belongs to you so if you provide sense of this ownership to people and then talk to them about safety and security, that would be a better way.

SK: What are key outcomes and recommendations of the research?

PD: We have four sets of recommendations: for the government, for the law enforcements, for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and for civil society organisations. There are some recommendations around reformation of policies that affects the life of LGBTI online and offline.

We have spoken about surveillance, and how people are to be aware of any form of surveillance including those by government or family.
Another recommendation is to the government to establish a separate body, either judicial or quasi-judicial in nature, to oversee internet service providers (ISP) compliance with surveillance measures. The government should ensure that such a body will be comprised of individuals with adequate expertise in human rights and law enforcement and that its members will be independently appointed and secure in their tenure.
Ensure that all online surveillance measures are subject to the approval of an independent body.
Also to amend the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Act (as amended in 1996), to specifically exclude the Commission’s power to oversee surveillance measures in individual cases.
Require any general evaluation of an ISP’s compliance with surveillance requests, if provided for, to be transparent and in the public domain.

There needs to be investigation of cases of online harassment.
In addition to that, we have recommendation for civil society organisations to work with media, the government and to create awareness among people, amongst the others.
To civil society organisations including those working with LGBTI community, we recommend that they use the internet more.
SK: Were there any challenges while in the process of conducting the study and writing the report? And are there any suggestions for other researchers interested to conduct research around use of internet?

SB: There were difficulties in reaching out to the people in the communities, for interviews and for FGDs, mostly those who were anonymous. Apart from that, when we had approached government officials, they were not willing to speak to the researchers perhaps because of the legal framework and stigma surrounding LGBTIQ. The second part to the research was included because the data gathered for the research showed that there were areas that needed to be addressed. In Sri Lanka, there is a need to study how feminists and women rights activists use the internet and what challenges they face when using the internet for their work.

Feminist Internet Exchange pop-up

Feminist Internet Exchange pop-up
Some feminist lovers of the internet and the Association for Progressive Communications are organising a Feminist Internet eXchange pop-up at the Reading Room, in Bangkok on 31st July 2017 (9:30am-5:30pm). This will be following the 2017 Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum.
The main objective of this meetup is to look at the Feminist Principles of the Internet through the lens of the experiences related to gender, sexuality and technology in Asia Pacific. We would also like to come up with a set of recommendations for the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) synthesis document as a way to surface gender and sexuality into the internet governance platforms and discussions in the region. This pop-up event will also serve as a space for bringing in more activists and those working in the development sectors and their voices to spread the word about the Feminist Principles of the Internet. 
The event will feature the soft launch of the EROTICS (Exploratory Research on Sexuality and ICTs) South Asia three country (India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) research study on sexual expression, sexual content online and its various gatekeepers in the larger context of a free internet for all. 
We hope you can join us for this Feminist Internet eXchange and add value to the event with your knowledge, expertise, and overall awesomeness.
Best Wishes,
Women and Media Collective, Sri Lanka
Note on logistics:
  • Address to the Reading Room – 19 Si Lom, Khwaeng Silom, Khet Bang Rak, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10500, Thailand
  • The venue is centrally located in Silom, known for its street food market and a variety of restaurantsWe will have a 1.5 hour long lunch break for participants to be able to explore local cuisine. 
  • This  is a communityorganised event, and so we’d really appreciate any contribution to cover the venue rental.

Digital Storytelling Workshop

Storytelling is a powerful medium that allows people to describe an experience to a listening audience. While there are many ways in which stories are told, the Association for Progressive Communications together with the Women and Media Collective held a digital storytelling workshop to provide participants with the skills and knowledge to tell ones story in ways that would leave an impression in the ever evolving digital space. Thus, from the 6 -9th of July feminists, women’s rights and sexual rights activists gathered in Colombo to learn the craft of digital storytelling and to share their thoughts on what digital rights means to them in the current context. Why digital? Because today, digital is known to be an easy way of communicating with one another as opposed to other methods, such as telephones, due to factors such as costs.


Following the enthusiastic introductions of all those present the resource persons of the workshop, Jennifer Radloff and Valentina Pelizzer from APC described the methodology to the participants. Short stories of similar nature were screened and discussed for participants to understand better of what is to be expected of them. The screening included telling stories of sex workers, transgender persons, acid burn victims and other stories surrounding women’s issues. Thus the importance of building on such stories were highlighted.

Through the workshop participants were expected to create a story that could be shared online, within their personal spaces or in the story circle of the workshop. The stories were to encapsulate a theme: ‘me, body and rights in the digital’. To begin with, story telling and writing was introduced to the participants through various activities and by the end of the first day everyone had plenty of stories in hand.

Subsequently, participants began the process of creating the stories they were to produce digitally at the workshop. After introducing them to assistive techniques to script writing, the stories were shared within the group. Video and audio editing software’s were used among participants for the digitisation of stories.

The third day consisted of image searching, audio recording and editing of stories. Participants were encouraged to be creative with the story images they selected by producing their own pictures or artwork that would best describe their chosen narrative. For this purpose, the basics of selecting pictures and the general rules of photography were explained so that each image sent out a clear message to the viewer. On the final day, once the stories were complete they were screened at the workshop.

Storytelling is known to be beneficial to not just the storyteller but to the listener as well. A story is a reflection of one’s values, attitudes, beliefs and it depicts a situation that can reach a diverse group of people effectively and with ease. It is with this in mind that the digital storytelling workshop sought to share stories that are most often left untold, particularly by women, due to the lack of opportunity, constant discrimination or stereotyping that impede women and activists from telling stories that they want heard. Thus, this workshop was an opportunity to enhance the capabilities of those who attended by engaging them in the art of storytelling in a form that is more relevant in today’s world.


Women’s Internet Governance Forum Sri Lanka 2017: A Reflection

By Sharanya Sekaram

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a multi-stakeholder platform that facilitates the discussion of public policy issues pertaining to the Internet. From the 16th to the 18th of May, the Sri Lanka Internet Governance Forum convened for the second time in Colombo. Hosted by the Internet Society Sri Lanka Chapter, in 2016 the Forum was described as having the primary goal of “allow the voice of people to be heard by policy makers on the issues related to Internet Governance and to help people to take an active part in the decision-making processes[1]. One would assume that the same goal and purpose continued for the second installment of the Forum in 2017. It was on the first day of the Forum that the Women’s IGF was convened – described in the agenda as a ‘gender perspective discussion forum within IGF Sri Lanka”. This was done so through a series of panels and discussions that happened in the discussion on The School of Internet Governance.


Gender and Internet Governance, along with concepts like Cyber Feminism have been topics of discussion for some time now. Gender IT in 2012 launched ‘Women in Internet Governance: A Policy Advocacy Toolkit’ which looks at “several relevant issues area addressed regarding women’s participation in shaping the internet as a democratic space, where women’s freedom of speech is respected and valued and where they can access and develop crucial information[2].  Following the 9th international IGF in 2014, Through Gender IT, APC also launched a public document entitled ‘the Feminist Principles of the Internet’ which outlined principles on how to govern the harassment, intimidation, violence and other issues women and gender minorities face online[3]. Cyber Feminism is a term that was coined in 1994 by Sadie Plant, director of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick, to describe the work of feminists interested in theorizing, critiquing, and exploiting the Internet, cyberspace, and new-media technologies in general. It was heartening to see a recondition of the fact of a need for a specific discussion on women and internet governance, and an opportunity for these issues to be raised and discussed in a Sri Lankan context. An acknowledgment of the issue and the creation of a space to discuss it is always the first step towards beginning to constructively address and develop solutions.

Sanchia Brown of the Women and Media Collective said that a space to discuss aspects of internet governance and its implications to women is indeed a rare occurrence, particularly in Sri Lanka. “As a woman who is constantly engaging online and encouraging other women to do so, especially through my work, the Internet Governance Forum ascertained that the internet in fact enables and enhances women’s choices in a local context. The internet is not new to the country, yet, it’s a technology that society has uniformly dismissed over the years due to issues such as access and the inability to afford it.”

The first panel was entitled ‘Does Gender Matter?’ and was reasonably effective in providing a context to the need for a Women’s IGF. Chithrangani Mubarak (Chairperson, ICTA Sri Lanka) pointed out that the gender digital divide is complex and there are racial, ethnic, and socio-economic factors that contribute to it. It is at this intersection that issues in internet governance should be discussed. The other panelists (Thelma Perera, Dilrukshi Gamage, and Sameera Jayawardena) focused heavily on the lack of access to technology and the internet the women face and the harassment faced online. An audience member during the discussion raised the issue of cyber exploitation and harassment. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a lack of understanding or acknowledgment of the connection between women’s issues online spaces (be it access or harassment/violence) and the fact that it is a manifestation of the general violence and lack of access that women face in the real world. Sachini Perera in a piece for Resurj points out “Even when we overcome those barriers [of access to the Internet], often women and girls’ increased access to the Internet is directly proportional to the increase of violence against women online. Many a time, rather than address the structural causes of violence, the possibility of violence is used as a reason to restrict women and girls’ access to the Internet and censor their freedom of expression and right to bodily integrity[4]

In the second session “Is the internet a feminist issue?” it was heartening and positive to hear Manique Gunarathne (The Employers Federation of Ceylon) talk about the issues faced by women with disabilities and their access to the internet, as well how the access can empower them. Unfortunately, the panelists who had been engaged to speak about Cyber Feminism lacked information and expertise on the concept, limiting the discussion greatly. The third and fourth sessions were merged and both the role of women in internet governance and women’s voices in the public sphere were jointly discussed due to lack of time. Prof. Maheesha Kapurubandara pointed out that women are critically absent in internet governance and this has resulted gender issues being projected by men who are unable to bring in a first-hand perspective. Paba Deshaypriya being the sole panelist from a non-solely-ICT point of view refreshingly reminded the participants that the issues of cyber exploitation and violence are simply a manifestation of offline harassment, violence and exploitation and need to be treated as such. She emphasized that a centralized non-judgmental reporting mechanism is needed for people to access when they face these issues online.

Perhaps what was one of the key gaps within the sessions was that apart from Paba Deshapriya (Director, The Grassrooted Trust) none of the panelists came from a gender/women’s rights and issues perspective. We often in such discussions fail to understand that the space of Gender is a cross-cutting, and a very real area of work and expertise. While most of the panelists for the Women’s IGF were women, they often were not approaching internet governance from gender rights/issues perspective. One cannot fault them, as they were not experts, or working on gender issues, and as mentioned before, this is an area that requires someone who has worked in or engaged with these issues to provide insights. This issue had been previously raised by Isis International following the 2014 IGF held in Instanbul. A reflection written by Sonia Randhawa noted that, “the way that technologies are built and governed is being decided in forums such as the IGF. This makes internet governance and the IGF a matter of concern for all those who want to build an inclusive, equal, and feminist future. The absence of human rights and feminist activists from the IGF could leave the playing field, the decision-making, to governments and corporations[5]”. We do not expect everyone who works for IT companies to be experts in technicalities of IT, and in the same vein we should not expect every woman to be able to provide a gender rights perspective.

It is undeniably a positive first step that allowed the space to begin discussing what is rapidly becoming a more pressing issue. It is also important to note that the discussions on difficult conversations took place in a predominantly welcoming space, a contrast to the inherent closed nature of ‘techie’ spaces to those outside the sector. It would greatly improve the outcomes of the Forum in the next installment to see the inclusion of more stakeholder including members of civil society, grassroot women and gender organization, gender practitioners and the private sector, not only in the audience but as panelists and discussants. As Sanchia went on to note in her reflection, “On the surface, the Forums nearly successful multi-stakeholder approach brought these issues to light, but the conversation on countering violence and protecting the rights of women and marginalized groups in the online sphere were limited. Being a first of its kind the Sri Lanka, the Women IGF became a common ground for all those present to articulate their concerns with respect to internet governance while at the same time identifying how stakeholders can work towards making the internet more accessible, open, and inclusive”.

One hopes that the first Women’s IGF will not be that last, and the conversations that were begun that afternoon do not end once people leave the space. It is vital that we understand these issues are dynamic and ever evolving (much like the Internet itself) and it is through continued, open, welcoming and willing dialog and collaboration that sustainable solutions can be developed and implemented.

[1] Source: Internet Society Sri Lanka Chapter website <>

[2] Source: Critically absent: Women in internet governance. A policy advocacy toolkit on Gender IT <>

[3] Source: Why do the Feminist Principles of the Internet matter? On Gender IT <>

[4] Source: What do women’s rights have to do with the SDGs and the Internet? On resurj <;

[5] Source: Gender at the Internet Governance Forum on Isis international <>

Is the internet really democratic?: How the ‘wired world’ excludes women and other marginalized persons

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852), image courtesy of English mathematician and writer; known for her work on the Analytical Engine; first to recognise the machines potential beyond pure calculation and created the first algorithm to be carried out by the machine; now considered the first ‘computer programmer’ (Wikiperdia)

By Subha Wijesiriwardena

This was a short presentation I delivered (with a few small edits) at a panel discussion organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka under the theme “Cross Cutting Dynamics of Online Democracy; Mainstreaming Internet Freedom and Right to Privacy in Sri Lanka” , to address women’s rights within the context of internet rights and internet governance.

It’s often said that the internet democratizes information and even knowledge itself. We more or less accept this to be true; the internet shattered the elite stronghold on ‘knowledge’. The internet has not only made information more freely available but has changed the very way we understand knowledge and information. What we understand by democratisation is not only that things are made available to more people but that they come to belong to more people. The internet was supposed to be the very embodiment of this – it belongs to no one — it belongs to everyone.

The internet was supposed to be a blueprint for a truly free, fair, equal and democratic society.

This was the promise of men like this. Did anyone bother to ask what the ‘town square’ was like for women? It’s not always that nice or safe, really.

However, unsurprising to some of us, over the years it has become evident that the internet is not really fair and democratic as we once believed it could be. The online world is really just a reflection and a parallel of the so-called offline world. This means, misogyny prevails; marginalisation prevails. Violence prevails.

Online, the people who wield power and make decisions are often the same as those who do so offline. It is therefore also the same persons and groups of persons who are most vulnerable to harassment and violence offline, that face the same reality online. While women and girls are not the only groups who are disproportionately targeted in online violence, I will focus today on women and girls.

Women are excluded from enjoying the ‘democracy’ of the internet in more ways than through being the targets of online violence – they are also excluded through plain and simple exclusion. Women are often excluded from ‘tech’ circles and discourses; they are not considered technological innovators – though many are – and are routinely left out of these conversations. Certainly, there are often no women at the table when internet governance policies around the world is being discussed – though universally, it is women and girls who are significantly more likely to be unsafe on the internet than others, and who you would imagine stand to benefit from internet governance.

While in Silicon Valley the optics seem to signal that things are changing– with women tech entrepreneurs becoming more visible – we find that this is unfortunately not a sign that women, as a group, are really able to make landmark decisions that directly affect their own well being and the fulfillment of their human rights online. In ‘technology’, women are still scarce at the policy-making and decision-making levels, though many women are increasingly doing the work of technology. This is not to mention the important issue of what happens to women of colour, and women of the Global South, for whom mere ‘access’ itself is still largely curtailed by poverty, and a lack of autonomy.

The answer to the question ‘Is the internet a free and fair space?’ will vary according to who is being asked, just as the answer to the question ‘Is the world a free and fair place?’ would vary according to who was being asked. Persons who do not endure or experience daily discrimination, harassment, or violence can sometimes willfully believe that the world is free, fair and safe for everyone. This is the same logic within which policies to govern our societies are still often made.

This is the crucial thing to remember about policy and traditional modes of policy-making; for a long time, policies have been made exclusively by small, homogeneous groups of people – people like Bill Gates — who do not represent the vast diversity of the human experience, and who therefore develop policies which unfortunately do not address the vast range of real-life issues.

It is the same with the internet – all over the world, discourses about internet rights and internet governance have carried on for years while excluding persons and groups who are disproportionately and sometimes exclusively affected by all kinds of violence and harassment on the internet. Internet policy and internet governance discourses are male-dominated all over the world – though it still cries ‘democratization’.

Melanie Stewart Millar, an award-winning scholar and political science teacher, extensively analyses the tech magazine Wired to develop a critique of the imagery, symbolism, language and methodologies used in tech discourse to build an exclusively elite male narrative which necessarily excludes women and others – while spreading the ideology that technology will ultimately lead to the dissolution of all social inequality.

  • Wired discourse constructs an artificial world which continually sends the same basic message: the digital age is the domain of a masculine digital elite. How does Wired do this? First, it excludes those it considers Other – women, minorities, the poor, the technologically illiterate – to create a high-status, masculine world. The magazine then populates this artificial world with images which reinforce existing hierarchies and support its highly individualistic ideology. Finally, by invoking images of technotopia, Wired’s discourse puts forward a vision which suggests social differences may disappear altogether in the virtual world of the future’1 — Melanie Stewart Millar

And this has been perhaps the legacy of digital discourse – to espouse equality and democracy while reinforcing patriarchal hierarchy; to peddle the fantasy of redistributed power while assigning new kinds of power to the same old powerful.

You will find many critical declarations today which say ‘The Internet is not really a public space – it’s not really a democracy’ but the fact is, it is, it is a public space, it is a democracy, in the only ways we have ever known ‘public space’ or ‘democracy’: Limited to a few, while others traverse it at risk.

We have developed the concept of ‘the digital divide’ but to bring a gendered focus to this has been a struggle.

The digital gender gap is real and is so at many levels.2

I want today to look at three issue-areas today and how these could be addressed by progressive policy reform:

1. Women and access to the internet
2. Women and girls as targets of online violence and harassment
3. Women excluded from policy-making and decision-making within internet governance discourses and spaces

I would call this a ‘matrix of exclusion’ because as you will see these things not only work independently, but also work in sync, together, to exclude women from the ‘internet democracy’. Through this we will see that the historical exclusion of women from ‘technology’ endures.


  1. Women and access to the internet
    ‘Women are about 50% less likely to be connected than men in the same age group with similar levels of education and household income.’3 — World Wide Web Foundation

The World Wide Web Foundation’s 2015 Global Report titled ‘Women’s Rights Online: Turning Access into Empowerment’ was a study of seven developing cities; the report draws an almost direct link between access to education, ability to continue education and functional ‘use’ of the internet.

Some excerpts:

  • The most important socio-economic drivers of the gender gap in ICT access are education and age
  • Controlling for income, women who have some secondary education or have completed secondary school are six times more likely to be online than women with primary school or less.
  • Cities with the highest gender gaps in education level such as Nairobi (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda), Maputo (Mozambique), and Jakarta (Indonesia) were also the ones where the highest gender gaps in Internet access were reported.
  • Conversely, in the cities where women’s educational attainment outstrips the men in our sample (New Delhi and Manila), the gender gap in Internet access has closed.

The report asserts: ‘Being female deepens exclusion on every single one of these counts’.

However, it is no good simply analyzing ‘access’ as a development indicator or merely a precursor to the realization of the United Nations designed Sustainable Development Goals.

Inequality in access to the internet for a woman criss-crosses with her buying power, her economic ability and independence, her general level of autonomy and freedom of movement, her exercise of her right to privacy offline – as well as the realization and protection of her right to free expression by her community and her nation at large.

These are important things to ask: does she own the device she uses to access the internet? Does her husband or partner know her passwords? Does she have any free time and in that free time, any privacy? Is there someone looking over her shoulder and monitoring who she is friends with online? Is she generally expected to have opinions and is it acceptable that she expresses them?

Access is not a cold, statistically discernible factor when it comes to women and girls – real access is about real autonomy, and as long as we can’t grant and guarantee women and girls their autonomy, as well as their freedom of expression, in their real-lives, we can’t guarantee that mere ‘access’ will solve their problems.

Policy recommendations to make ‘access’ meaningful:

  • Early education for girls and boys alike in computers, programming, online tools & social networking
  • Erasing differentiations between ‘technical’ subjects for boys and ‘domestication’ subjects for girls in schools
  • Giving girls and boys alike fair and free access to computers and the internet in schools
  • Pro-actively ensuring girls become familiar with computers and the internet
    Educating girls on exercising their right to privacy offline and online, right to autonomy and free expression
  • Making time to educate parents (especially mothers) and students together on the internet, computer skills


2. Women and girls as targets of online harassment and violence

  • ‘Preventing technology-related VAW is an important component in ending violence against women today and contributes to creating a safe and secure environment for women and girls in every sphere of life’— Association for Progressive Communications (APC)4

It is now a well-known fact that women and girls are disproportionately targeted in a range of online violence and abuse, ranging from stalking, verbal abuse, defamation, blackmail, death and rape threats, revenge porn etc – these are now universal problems. Where there is net connectivity, it has opened up new avenues and forms of violence against women.

An article published in 2016 in The Guardian (UK) explored a study, sampling over 1000 women, conducted in Australia5. Some excerpts from this article:

  • ‘Australian research finds that nearly half of all women report experiencing abuse or harassment online, and 76% of those under 30’
  • ‘Researchers found that women received twice as many death threats and threats of sexual violence as men.’
  • ‘But 38% of those who had experienced online harassment chose to ignore it, and only 10% reported it to police.’
  • ‘The findings suggested that women believed that online abuse was a growing problem and felt powerless to act over it.’

What’s important to note here are the last two points, which signal the unsettling truth that women don’t really believe that reporting abuse or violence has any positive effect on their lives.

Screenshots used by Grassrooted Trust

Grassrooted Trust, a Sri Lankan organisation, has been working in schools and with young adults to understand and address some of the fundamental cultural problems around gendered violence and importantly, relationship violence: the framework within which online violence against women and girls is commonly committed.

Earlier this year, they published a now widely read piece called ‘Investigating Sri Lanka’s nude culture’6 which opened our eyes to the way gendered cyber exploitation works in age-groups as young as 14-15 years. This also shows the troubling pattern of violence within intimate relationships.

The article explores the organisation’s experiences with 70 cases of cyber exploitation reported to them by young girls, in which they uncovered a dangerous world of online databases of nude photos and home-made videos featuring young Sri Lankan girls, from whom no consent has been taken. Young women are threatened or blackmailed into sending photos of themselves, and often by boyfriends or ex-boyfriends, who then sell this data for profit.

  • ‘Writing this report has, in some sense, been a race to keep up with breaking news, as girl after girl and woman after woman, has come forward to expose physical and verbal attacks on them: teenage girls driven to suicide by online trolling; an airline passenger using her cell phone to record and report physical and sexual harassment from a male co-passenger; an actress publicly responding to targeted online hate speech against her; a former Major League Baseball pitcher using doxing3 to identify people responsible for “Twitter troll” posts with obscene, sexually explicit comments about his teenage daughter.’7 – UNWomen

A UNWomen report, Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls, published in 2015 subtitled A World Wide Wake Up Call, shows us alarming numbers and statistics, and acts as evidence that universally, women are disproportionately targeted in online violence and that this violence intersects with the discrimination and violence they face offline. It also confirms that a large proportion of cyber violence against women is committed by an intimate partner, a former intimate partner, a relative or someone they know – once again, mirroring real-life exactly.

In many countries, cyber violence against women can only be legally remedied through defamation laws, and in civil court, not in a criminal sense. In Sri Lanka, we barely have any capacity to deal with cyber crimes against women at all.

But this again is a reflection of what justice systems are like for women in the offline world; it took us so long to even accept violence against women – especially in their manifestations as domestic violence – was violence at all. Even today, sexual crimes are rarely reported by women, because systemically, the odds are stacked against survivors of violence. The burden of proof is on the victim.

  • “Until domestic violence became a national policy priority, abuse was dismissed as a lovers’ quarrel. Today’s harmless jokes and undue burdens are tomorrow’s civil rights agenda.”– Amanda Hess, Technology Journalist

Organisations which deal with cyber law and policy like CERT Sri Lanka can only meter out archaic solutions to a very quickly growing problem – they can shut down sites where unlawful nude images are shared, for example, but won’t catch the perpetrators. Because there is little to no acceptance of the problem as systemic, gendered violence.

But where laws and policy has failed, technology itself has been helping women feel safer and more secure. Across studies, women report feeling safer because they have a mobile phone, and there are now many apps internationally and regionally, which women can use to alert a friend or relative in case of harassment or danger. Human rights and women’s rights organisations have developed mapping programmes in collaboration with tech organisations, where incidents of physical violence / cyber violence against women can be documented and recorded, geographically.

APC Take Back the Tech is one such program which uses tech to map incidents of gender-based cyber violence, by category of incident.

Policy recommendations for combating VAW online

  • Reasonable reporting mechanisms, actually accessible to women
  • No immediate burden of proof on victim
  • Women officers to receive reports – trained on cyber VAW and how to address victims
  • Policies which enable girls and women to report cyber VAW without a relative/spouse present, knowing sometimes perpetrators are family/partner
    Officers specifically trained in how to deal with victims who are minors while respecting their autonomy
  • Guarantee of no further invasion of victim’s privacy in court
  • Guarantee of victim’s confidentiality being protected, from time of report being made
  • Educating girls on their rights online and on reporting mechanisms
  • Educating girls to identify violence as violence, no matter the perpetrator
  • Acceptance of cyber VAW as criminal, with consequences for perpetrators
    Tech companies and organizations work together with rights organisations to use tech to bolster documentation and reporting of cyber and other VAWPolicy must most importantly address structural and deep attitudinal changes in the way justice systems and the legal systems see violence against women***

3. Women excluded from policy-making and decision-making within internet governance discourses and spaces

Witch-burnings was a way of discrediting and silencing women whose knowledge and assertiveness proved a threat to patriarchal and power

Women have long since been excluded from decision-making spaces and have been discredited as ‘knowers’, and as purveyors and producers of knowledge – because to accept them as equal in knowledge and insight would be a threat to patriarchal establishments of ‘knowledge’. One of the chief justifications given for excluding women even today from ‘tech’ spaces is that they lack the relevant knowledge; ‘they don’t know’.

When it appears women ‘do know’, there is a large machinery which kicks in then to discredit women. Ultimately this just keeps women out of the room and absent from the table when critical decisions which affect their lives and lives of others are being made.

So much of the work advocacy done in the last 25 years, of getting women connected to technology has been geared towards ‘access’ and increasing connectivity.

APC’s 2012 report Critically Absent 8 discusses how many more women around the world are now active internet users through mobile phone, how technology has helped women grow their businesses, feel safer and engage more actively in the ‘online world’. It cites women tech leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook CFO, in saying that ‘women are increasingly more likely to be active users and engagers on social networking sites etc., and are more active as buyers online.’

So much so that the online world has been referred to as a ‘matriarchy’ by a few male analyst and critics.

But has all our work to bring women into connectivity achieved anything more than turning women into better consumers and more lucrative business opportunities for massive corporations like Facebook?

Unfortunately, in terms of actually bringing women in to decision-making roles at the level of governance and policy-making, we have not made as many leaps.

  • ‘But are we only interested in increasing the number of women who consume internet and electronic tools, rather than defining the world in which they are used? Does it make sense to talk of “matriarchy” based on the large number of women in the use of certain social sites if they are not contributing to the design and function of those sites? The matriarchal analogy looks back. The debate has to get beyond this image. Women want to exercise full citizenship in cyberspace and to articulate the virtual world alongside the real one to assert their right to autonomy and the freedom to choose, without ties to traditional models.’ – Critically Absent (APC)

There are three main areas which concern women uniquely when it comes to internet rights and governance:

A. Gender-blind policies/policy-making:
For a long time, policies universally – and their makers – have not considered gender as a critical perspective through which divisions and inequalities have to be addressed. They have assumed that working to decrease the ‘digital divide’ singularly through increasing access will solve the issue, and has worked on the assumption that that the divide has no critically gendered perspective; i.e that solving the problem for men would automatically solve it for women. Agendas like the Tunis Agenda assumes that to narrow the digital divide for men would narrow it for women.

B. Privacy and data collection affects women uniquely:
Women and girls are the targets of online threats and harassment, and we have seen that online violence can often go offline and pose very real dangers to women’s lives; it becomes important to note that data collection and information-gathering, which happens frequently on the internet these days, is of specific interest when it comes to women’s rights. Critically Absent states, ‘Often [this] information can be used in ways that threaten women and their families. This aspect of the problem rarely comes up in Internet governance discussion, but is an important component that could change the general understanding of the privacy issue.’

C. Information filtering is disadvantageous to women:
‘Information filtering presents another real disadvantage to women, offsetting the advantage of access to information the Internet is supposed to bring. In many places’ says Critically Absent. Information that is considered culturally taboo can be censored by governments, for example information related to abortion services or sexual and reproductive health and rights. This often disadvantages women directly.

A major issue is simple representation. Simply put, women are poorly represented in the upper-ranks of internet governance institutions and within discourse-spaces and this prevents the agendas from ever receiving critical and valuable gendered input.

  • ‘[in an] ICANN or an IGF meeting, there is a significant, if less than equal, female presence. But, as one moves through the various layers of leadership and responsibility, the number of women in ICANN starts to decrease. One of the big concerns each year is whether any women will get into the ICANN Board of Directors. At the time of writing, out of 15 voting directors, only two were women13. And that is as good as it has been in ICANN. In terms of the IGF and its Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) there has always been a deliberate effort to balance the group in terms of gender as well as regional representation.In addition to women’s participation, one needs to look at how receptive Internet governance institutions are to women’s issues. In general, while women’s participation is welcome, they are not expected to bring up women’s issue. It may be the old fashioned engineering ethos that all issues are gender neutral, or it may be due to policy issues that are believed to be driven ‘purely’ by business goals and trademark issues. Whatever the reason, the issues of Internet governance are not understood as being gendered.’ – Critically Absent (APC)

Policy recommendations to increase participation of women in internet governance:

  • Affirmative action to increase the participation of women and representatives of other historically marginalised groups, across layers of leadership in internet governance bodies
  • Mandate participation of women and other marginalised persons in all internet rights discussions and spaces
  • Mandate that policies and laws should be gender-aware, not gender-blind
    Women’s rights / gender sensitivity training for policy-makers and tech leaders
    Cross-cutting analyses of women’s rights offline + online: socio-economic, autonomy, privacy etc
  • Broaden understanding of ‘access’ – quality of autonomous engagement, with dignity and respect, over quantity of connections / increasing consumerism
  • Develop justice systems to support women
  • Protect women’s rights overall

Moving forward

Since women have been historically excluded, the only way to right this wrong is to set about proactively, affirmatively including them – in spaces, in discussions, in decision-making moments. This has to go hand in hand with actually acknowledging and listening to women’s experiences, their knowledge and their insights. The truth is that the inclusion of women, a gendered perspective and women’s rights angle in the discourses of internet governance will not only benefit women but everyone, including and especially other marginalized persons.

Democratisation here can’t only mean the democratisation of access to information and knowledge. It must also mean the democratisation of the production of information and knowledge. When we say ‘increase women’s access’ it can’t just be about getting them online but about how we can increase the quality of women’s engagement online, their role as knowledge and information producers and more importantly, room for them to engage and consistently shape and change discourse, without harm or risk of attack.

Making the internet truly democratic and safe, free and fair for everyone is really about making our world safe, free and fair for everyone. Underlying this has to be a proactively enhanced and rigorously implemented project to upend the current cultures and attitudes which govern and dictate how our justice systems work – and to reform the justice systems themselves.

Finally, we have to build and promote a rights-based discussion on internet governance and democracy – we have to take it out of the sphere of the ‘digital’ the ‘tech’ and to bring it to the table where we are talking about human beings, their rights, their societies and their inequalities. We have to make it a discussion about achieving real equality – and this means a serious commitment from governments and institutions, public and private, that goes beyond the aspirational promise of tech setting us free.


1 ‘Cracking the Gender Code: Who Rules the Wired World?’, Melanie Stewart Millar (Sumach, 1998)


3 Women’s Rights Online: Turning Access into Empowerment (World Wide Web Foundation, 2015 Global Report)




7 Cyber Violence Against Women And Girls: A World-wide Wake-up Call (UNWomen, 2015)

8 Critically Absent: Women’s Rights in Internet Governance (APC, 2012)

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What is technology based Violence against Women?

Technology-based violence against women (tech-based VAW) encompasses acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

The findings are from 1126 cases reported on the Take Back the Tech! Online map from 2012 to 2014.

Tech-based violence against women can also be reported through this site, by sending an email or with the hashtag #techbackthetech

Tech GBV