What does building an intersectional feminist internet look like?

“Intersectional feminism” by Subin YangCC BY-NC-ND

This is an abridged version of the 2022 State of the Internet lecture, organised yearly by Waag. For the full version in English, see here. For the Dutch version as published by the Groene Amsterdammer, see here.

The internet was once envisaged as a place for experimentation. For freedom to create and connect. For openness and creativity and boundless opportunity. Some of this may still exist in pockets online, but the internet we have today is quite different. Today, it’s a piece of global infrastructure driven by all the negative aspects of capitalism; which fuels and perpetuates racism, exploitation, State repression, censorship, and surveillance.

The internet we now have is broken, in all the ways that mirror the unequal power structures in our society.

The internet we have is broken, in all the ways that mirror the unequal power structures in our society. Yet, over the past 30 years it has become a deeply integrated part of nearly all aspects of our lives. Can we imagine what the internet could be if we envisaged it to serve not the interests of big tech and States, but of the communities and people who use it, each and every one of them?

Can we imagine what the internet could be if we envisaged it to serve not the interests of big tech and States, but of the communities and people who use it, each and every one of them?

In order to even consider rebuilding it in a way that doesn’t make us end up in a similar place, to genuinely begin “operation reboot”, we need to first form a vision of a different type of internet. A vision so fundamentally different that it is the antithesis to the internet which the racist, capitalist patriarchy in which we operate has produced.

What would an internet that is an intersectional feminist space, community-centred, pluralist, and genuinely representative look like?

This internet would be based on a holistic understanding of where “cyberspace” resides. Not in some fictional space, but intertwined with all aspects of our lives, and therefore interconnected with all our human rights; not just privacy and expression, but the full spectrum of rights, including the rights to science, culture, and education, health, and social security. This internet would place higher values on intersectionality, community, genuine pluralism and meaningful representation than on possessive individualism and social hierarchy, which in today’s society we all too often see playing out through hierarchies of race, class, and gender.

This internet would be a tool for both individual and collective liberation, creativity, connectivity and growth.

This internet would be a tool for both individual and collective liberation, creativity, connectivity and growth. And this internet would be accessible for all. That goes beyond closing the digital divide and lowering the cost and other entry barriers for accessing the internet; it also relates to how digital spaces are designed and managed. Inclusive design practices are currently treated as “add ons” or “nice to haves” in the current digital environment. They should be the root and foundation to how we build the (new) internet.

What does this mean in practice?

Let’s begin with a number of elements of this ‘future’ internet that we might produce. In doing so, I am building not only on the inspiration provided by many thinkers on intersectionality, anti-racism, and abolition,* but also on the work done by others in translating these concepts for the digital context, including Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the Association for Progressive Communications, and the African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms.

Feminist Principles of the Internet 2.0 — Association for Progressive Communications

The building blocks for an intersectional feminist internet can be placed under three pillars: autonomy and agency; participation; and anti-capitalist structures.

The building blocks are best placed under three pillars: autonomy and agency; participation, and anti-capitalist structures.

Autonomy and agency

This requires three main building blocks: informed consent, data sovereignty and abolitionist principles.

First, we need to create a culture in which proper ethics and holistic practices of consent are built into the way we design, build, and operate online spaces. This requires meaningful transparency and giving people true agency in how they choose to engage online; not a vague opt in/out of preset terms and conditions that are non-negotiable.

Second, there must be data sovereignty or stewardship over people’s own personal data. This is more than abolishing manifestations of surveillance capitalism, such as AdTech (the online trading of data profiles for targeted advertising). It also ties into the ability to move your data when and to where you choose.

Third, a new system of governance must be rooted in abolitionist principles. The dominant narrative in our societies is that “bad behaviour” requires policing and disciplining, a way of thinking that is so normalised and engrained in our collective thinking that this has also been the response to addressing “online harms”. Instead of reinforcing a culture of surveillance and punishment, we need to build a practice of examining root causes of the systemic and interpersonal forms of harm we encounter.

Participation

This consists of the building blocks design, access, and safety.

We should move to a system of community-centred design. A great place to start is the “design justice” practice described by Sasha Costanza-Chock. Design justice is an approach to design that is led by marginalised communities and explicitly aims to challenge structural inequalities instead of reproducing them.

Safety needs to be a foundational feature. Everyone should be able to engage on the internet under the expectation to remain free from violence.

Access means not only universal, affordable, unconditional, and equal access to the internet for all; it also means accessible for all regardless of ability, language, or other characteristics. Inclusive design practices should be the root and foundation to how we build online spaces. This also means that the third building block, safety, needs to be a foundational feature. Everyone should be able to engage on the internet under the expectation to remain free from violence.

Anti-capitalist structures

This final pillar looks at severing the ties between capitalist actors and our internet infrastructure, and putting systems and practices in place that will prevent them from regaining dominance.

We need to dismantle the infrastructure that facilitates the surveillance-industrial complex. The technology and systems that facilitate our individual profiles to be sold to the highest bidder for targeted advertising, manipulates our behaviour, and harvests data for law enforcement agencies needs to be abolished.

The second building block is looking at alternatives: community-owned infrastructure, and working with free/libre and open source software, tools, and platforms.

Lastly, interoperability is key here. To make the idea of autonomy and agency from the first pillar a reality, we need to be able to have meaningful options to not only move our data across platforms or communities, but also for interaction between them.

What does all of this mean, really?

Ultimately, it’s about making different choices: community over domination, respect over censorship and abuse, collective well-being over extraction, solidarity over individualism, and community welfare and subsistence over profit.

Ultimately, it’s about making different choices: community over domination, respect over censorship and abuse, collective well-being over extraction, solidarity over individualism, and community welfare and subsistence over profit.

We cannot “fix” the internet. Unless we change our power structures, the systems we produce will always be harmful to not only those we wish to keep away from power, but all of us. If we continue tinkering with the status quo, we keep ourselves trapped in the same frame, forever fighting symptoms instead of addressing root causes.

This is not revolutionary, even if some of it may seem that way. Real, lasting change doesn’t need magic and fireworks. But it does need us to centre our humanity, and find comfort in sharing ownership and control with people different from us and make our equal right to be there– together– a reality. The choice is ours to make.

* There are so many wonderful thinkers in these areas that it is difficult to limit reference to only a few. The ones I find myself returning to regularly, however, are Audre Lorde, bell hooks, James Baldwin, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. In the Dutch context I especially look to the work Gloria Wekker and Philomena Essed have done. In making the connections to the digital context, the work of Ruha Benjamin, Safiya Noble, Joy Buolamwini, Anasuya Sengupta, Sarah Chander, and Laurence Meyer has been pioneering and inspirational.

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