Claim the Space Online: Gender, Access and Free Speech

This is the seventh and last in a series of posts reporting on the day-long “Connect Your Rights!” meeting held in Mumbai in November 2013. The meeting explored topics such as tools to combat violence against women, pornography, sexuality, and freedoms and risks in the online world.

More than a decade ago, when Indians were starting to get major exposure to the Internet, it seemed like a world without boundaries. There was a sense of euphoria, the promise of transforming us as a civilisation. Over the years, there has been “a collapsing of order” with the increase in government and corporate censure, which threatens to get worse in the future, said  Geeta Seshu, consulting editor of The Hoot.

Despite the consumption of adult pornography being legal in India, the Department of Telecommunications issued a directive to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in June 2013 to block 39 pornography and pornography-sharing websites without citing any reason. Even a cursory glance at the annual reports of The Hoot’s Free Speech Hub reveals numerous instances of government censorship and heightened surveillance over the past few years. “There is much more surveillance and many more privacy violations. As per the amended law, the government can ban something that is just offensive. The government can check your private data by way of a simple administrative order. None of this can be reviewed,” added Seshu.

Restricting Internet freedom has a negative impact on women and women’s rights. It has been established that digital inclusion can empower women by giving them a sense of equality and boosting their earning potential. Having a voice and a presence on the Internet enables women to educate themselves, improve their health, start their own businesses, raise their concerns, and participate in the larger political process. However, research indicates that women are coming online later than men. “Access is a free speech issue and we do need to start examining women’s engagement with the Internet from the very point of access,” said Seshu.

A 2013 report by the Broadband Commission Working Group on “Broadband and Gender” estimated that there are about 200 million fewer women online than men. In India, there are an estimated 60 million women and girls online compared with 80 million male Internet users. The reasons cited for the gender divide include lack of education, cost of access, illiteracy and lack of awareness about the Internet. The biggest barrier, according to women surveyed in different studies, is gender bias about the usage of the Internet practised by families and communities. Women are not allowed to access the Internet as a means of control. At times, they are denied access on the grounds that they could fall prey to ‘bad influences’ such as pornography.

Women also face harassment and misogyny online which affects their Internet usage, sometimes to the extent that they censor themselves or stop using those online spaces. Women have the right to use and interact in online spaces without fear of surveillance, data retention, threats, harassment, intimidation or violence.

Despite these hurdles, young women negotiate freedom and censure by using the online space to challenge cultural taboos and social restrictions on sexuality, relationships and self-determination. The EroTICs India 2011 study states, “This generation of youngsters are probably the first demographic in the history of independent India that is able to work around Internet in such a manner”. Seshu elucidates, “While we examine issues of free speech and sexuality, it is also fascinating to look at how women use the medium, how do they interact with it and what do they get out of online media — as users, as audiences and readers and as creators of content”.

For the past few years, Indian women are creating their own media by way of blogs and similar platforms. There are mommy bloggers who turn the traditional notion of motherhood on its head, there are women who write about their sexual escapades, and women who speak about political issues. Apart from giving them a source of income, blogs also gives them an agency to voice their opinions. “This is about claiming a space online and creating that space,” added Seshu.

Women should not give up on anonymity that the online space provides to explore new identities and sexuality. “This kind of anonymity helps us explore our sexuality online. This is not something that we can give up on. But that is exactly what government is restricting by conducting surveillance on our web space,” stated Seshu.

On November 20, the United Nations adopted the resolution on the right to privacy. It recognised privacy as a human right, integral to the right to free expression, and also declared that mass surveillance could have negative impacts on human rights.

Feminists and women’s groups need to recognise the need to take a rights-based approach to Internet issues. Manjima Bhattacharjya, an independent researcher, recalled the instance of a non-governmental organisation that provided girls computer education but restricted access to the Internet on the ground that the community will use that as a reason not to send girls for the classes. “It [the NGO] should have reflected on what they were doing by preventing young women from accessing the Internet when they should have enabled these women. Internet rights converge with women and sexuality rights. It impacts and impinges on women’s rights. We need to protect the internet not just for online activism but as a public space, as a public commons,” said Bhattacharjya.