Internet and sexuality from IGF 2010
By Marina Maria*
From September 14-17, the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) took place in Vilnius, Lithuania. The first IGF was organized in 2006 by the General Secretariat of the United Nations, to officially include the issue of internet governance in the diplomatic agenda, following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) recommendations. I had the opportunity to participate in the IGF 2010, representing the Brazilian Secretariat of the Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW) who was invited by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) because SPW is member of the Brazilian team of the EroTICs: sexuality and the internet – an exploratory research project, coordinated by the Women’s Networking Support Programme of APC. With other representatives of APC projects and teams, we attempted to highlight in the workshops the association between internet and sexuality, drawing attention to the human rights dimensions and the possible expressions of sexuality and gender in the context of the internet. In addition, we covered some activities at IGF 2010, publishing contents on the GenderIT website and also on Twitter.
In this fifth edition, the IGF had more than 2,000 people in attendance, with representatives of 107 nationalities, from different sectors: 25% from the government, 23% from the private sector; 23% from the technical and academic sectors; 21% from civil society; 5% from intergovernmental institutions; and 4% from the media. Regarding gender, 36% of the total of participants were women and 64% men, revealing that women’s participation is still considerably lower than men’s – although members of the IGF working group highlighted that there was a significant increase compared to the previous gatherings at the meeting. The average age of participants was 41, so the presence of young people is still very small, especially considering they represent a large portion of internet users in the world.
The IGF agenda included a variety of main sessions and workshops. The workshops were distributed according to the following major themes: Children and young people; Critical Internet Resources; Development; Access and diversity; Security, openness and privacy; Emerging Issues / Cloud computing; and Capacity building. After the workshops in each thematic area, everyone reconvened in a main session in which the coordinators of each workshop presented the main points discussed in order to identify trends and share the most relevant issues and debates.
Although the working group of the IGF is showing growth in the inclusion of women and women’s participation was a criterion for selection of workshops, the same cannot be said in relation to the number of debates to discuss the use of the Internet in relation to issues of sexuality, women’s rights, gender equity, sexual diversity and sexual and reproductive rights. If we consider all of the activities on the official agenda, only three sessions dealth directly with these matters. Actually, two were workshops (Sexual rights, openness and regulatory systems and Protecting women’s rights: Internet content from a gender perspective) and the third one was a meeting of the Dynamic Coalition on Gender – indeed, all of these activities involved the participation and mobilization of APC. The themes of the workshops were Security, privacy and openness and Access and diversity, respectively, and meetings sought to explore other approaches of talking about sexuality and human rights on the Internet. In addition to pointing out the possibilities of risk, harm, exploitation, abuse and rights violations, they also highlighted the many forms and perceptions of internet use in the promotion, especially of women’s rights and sexual rights, taken from experiences in countries that were part of the research EroTICs.
However, while a limited number of debates on sexuality and gender were identified, Children and young people emerged as one of the main themes on the IGF agenda, with eight workshops dedicated to topics such as protection and safety for children on the internet, youth, development of measures and mechanisms to combat cyber crimes and violations of children’s rights etc. The significant presence of sessions with this approach demonstrates a large challenge the IGF must face: how to reconcile so many conflicts of interest and rights in the agenda without prioritizing particular subjects.
The aim here is not to minimize the importance and necessity of discussing issues related to child protection on the internet as a priority for the IGF – mainly because the evidence about the images of sexual abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents that have been disseminated by the internet. However, cases of violation against women rights and several other social groups on the internet are also evident, alongside the successful use of this space to promote human rights, to mobilize and to share diverse information. What draws our attention is that this disparity of sessions at IGF may reflect a trend in the internet debate, related to strengthening the implementation of control measures, vigilantism and excessive protection, which can cause harmful effects to the rights of freedom of expression and privacy, especially when related to issues like sexuality on the internet and any matters regarding sexual rights, as it was a problem or a precedent to control these contents.
Although there were few workshops on sexuality and gender on the internet, the debates were interesting, with high quality reflections. The session Sexual Rights, openness and regulatory systems, held on the first day of the IGF, was moderated by Jac sm Kee, coordinator of the EroTICs research project, and with the participation of Tamara Qiblawi, from the EroTICs team in Lebanon; Clarissa Smith, from the University of Sunderland (UK); and Joy Liddicoat, from the Human Rights Commission of New Zealand. In this workshop it was possible to see the first reactions of people in relation to the analysis and findings from the EroTICs research project, because Tamara presented the findings in Lebanon, showing how the internet has had a strategic role in strengthening the queer movement there. She also presented some examples of websites and other online forums in which LGBT people have articulated and mobilized, contributing to the consolidation of a queer network in that country. For her part, Clarissa Smith spoke about the network on obscenity, a UK network that intends to examine what is currently happening in the 21st century, regarding sexuality, gender, media and technology. Among the most interesting issues that Clarissa shared during the workshop, I highlight her evidence of a recent explosion of sexual online communities, new ways of marketing and soliciting sex work, and the proliferation of online porn, which at the same time, has been used as an argument to protect children and families, since sexual content has been automatically synonymous with harmful content. She stressed that pornography has become an easy scapegoat for all kinds of problems that deserve protection and regulation measures. She also talked about the process of sexualization of everything and spoke of the importance of thinking not only that people producing and accessing pornography on the internet, but why they do it and how they use new technologies to do it. The last speaker was Joy Liddicoat, from New Zealand, and she presented information on sexuality and regulatory systems, giving examples of forms of engagement that she has observed in her country as commissioner for human rights.
The second session with this focus was Protecting women’s rights: Internet content from a gender perspective, held on the last day, as one more initiative of the APC with the Council of Europe. At this panel, the speakers were Maya Indira Ganesh representing the EroTICs team from India, and Katharine Sarikakis, from the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK. Maya showed some findings of the EroTICs research in her country, in terms of the ways that women between 18 and 25 years of lower and middle classes have used the internet in Mumbai. She noted that the EroTICs research only took one year and it was too short of a time to delve deeply into some discussions, like the internet regulation scenario there. She explained that it is increasing the number of internet users from this group of Indian women between 18 and 25 years and the research tried to identify what kinds of harms and risks these women face in this online space. At the same time that Indian women are heavily monitored regarding aspects such as how they dress and if they are married or not, it is possible to find ways to negotiate, resist and deal with this vigilantism, including on the internet. Maya also informed us that in India there is a law to regulate the use of new technologies of information and there are cases in her country of sites blocked by government because of their content, like the Savita Bhabhi blog, a cartoon blog in which a woman talks about pornography and details of her sexual adventures. Faced with different mechanisms of control and situations in which Indian women had their rights violated on the internet, the research showed that, in general, the people interviewed are aware that they need to learn how to protect their reputation and image in this context of moral panic and censorship of some kinds of content so they look for information in this way.
As I said initially, there was also a meeting of the Dynamic Coalition on Gender on the last day which identified strategies and examined the role of this network in IGF, highlighting issues related to women’s rights and women’s access to internet. Although I did not participate specifically in this activity, I could say that to promote this debate in a predominantly male space, mainly with men from the Global North who have a limited understanding of access and diversity for vulnerable groups, is still a challenge to the IGF, but one which has been questioned and articulated by women. In my point of view, to participate in the IGF was an interesting experience and, at same time, very disturbing, primarily because it was my first time at an event associated with the UN. Everything was so big and implied in a sense of rigor and control in terms of security that I had not seen before. It was interesting to see the participation of multiple stakeholders, different interests, realities, countries, cultures and approaches on the internet. At different times, I wondered where all the discussions and questions shared would arrive in the practice and how they really might impact the use of the Internet. I have no doubt that the discussions and open dialogue involving such diverse actors is a big step in trying to think of the best practices of using this tool, which is more than essential in society currently because it will impact various orders. I hope that this profound process helps move us forward in considering the defense of human rights as a priority. We wait for more news in IGF 2011 in Nairobi, Kenya.
* Marina Maria is a journalist and project assistant at Sexuality Policy Watch.