Addresses Key Issues and Challenges, Explores why Gender Equality Online Is a Human Rights Issue, Highlights Gender Bias in Design and Algorithmic Decision-making, and Outlines Steps to Take Women and the Internet Governance Agenda to the Next Level
20 December 2017
The twelfth Internet Governance Forum this afternoon discussed gender inclusion and the future of the Internet. It explored how to broaden and deepen the integration of gender into the Forum’s key and emerging themes, especially in the context of the Sustainable Development Goal 5, which specifically cited information and communication technologies as an important area for the development of gender equality and empowerment policies.
Bishakha Datta of the Gender Dynamic Coalition, session co-moderator, in her introductory remarks, said that this was the very first main session on gender in the Internet Governance Forum in 10 years, and it was hoped that it would signal the importance of integrating gender as a core element of Internet policy and governance issues.
In his opening remarks, David Kaye, United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said that it seemed that gender-based violence and freedom of expression were framed as competing issues; this did not have to be so as protection and expression could go hand in hand. Those putting burdens on expression, Governments and companies alike, must respect the framework protecting the right to expression, which demanded that the burdens be provided for by the law, be demonstrably necessary and proportionate, and target illegitimate purpose, and nothing else. Mr. Kaye urged companies to work more with civil society on putting this framework in place, particularly since the policies governing the use of digital space, which was a public space, could not be made without the users.
Key Issues and Challenges: One-Size-Fits-All Policy, Gender Digital Divide, Lack of Disaggregated Data, and Rural Women
Chenai Chair, Researcher and Communications and Evaluations Manager at ICT Africa, acknowledged the existing policy making processes focused on addressing gender issues and said that in those, a one-size-fits-all policy seemed to prevail, as they still needed to unpack what gender issues presupposed for different groups - rural women, youth, women from refugee camps, and others. There had been work in silos and little crossover, leading to duplication of work. Key issues were what access meant for those groups, why they accessed online services, and what they did with that access.
Doreen Bogdan, Chief of Strategic Planning and Membership, International Telecommunication Union, reminded that the gender digital divide and an access gap still existed: 12 per cent less women than men used the Internet; the rate of women non-users was especially high in Africa, and the gap was even wider in least developed countries. The lack of disaggregated data meant that problems were invisible - no one could solve problems that could not be seen. Women in rural areas suffered from a disproportionate negative impact.
Joyce Dogniez, Senior Director of Global Engagement at the Internet Society, noted that there were 200 million fewer women online than men, and that women were 25 per cent less likely to have Internet access than men, and said that the digital gender divide should be examined at the social, cultural and political levels. One of the crucial questions to consider was the affordability of the Internet. What happened after women and girls got online, and how did they use the Internet to make their lives better, she asked, stressing that everyone should have access to the opportunities that the Internet was offering.
In the ensuing discussion, the audience raised concern about the legislation that was biased against lesbian, bisexual and trans-women and stressed that the bias came from a specific place of power that was white and male, and not from the technology – the technology was neutral. Were there any successful examples in bridging the gender divide in accessing technological education? The panellists agreed that the context in which people existed determined the outcomes of technology for them, and said that, contrary to the stereotype that young people were “wasting their time on social networks”, research had actually shown that they used them for economic and social empowerment.
Why Gender Equality Online Is a Human Rights Issue
Veronica Birga, Women’s Human Rights Section, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the human rights framework must be seen as a helpful guidance to States and private companies to ensure that information and communication technologies supported human rights, including gender equality. This framework was also critical in identifying marginalized groups and populations and in addressing the gender digital divide, which perpetuated and aggravated gender inequality. Finally, and crucially, lessons gathered from years of the fight for gender equality offline could be applied online too.
Amos Toh, a legal advisor to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, noted that some intersectional elements were missing from the discussions at the Forum, in particular with regard to sexual orientation and an intersection of online and offline violence, particularly for people of different sexual orientation and gender identity. There was a vacuum in the protection afforded by States to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, including when they suffered violence.
Patricia Schulz, a member of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, said that the Committee had addressed the protection of women and girls from online violence in its general recommendation N°36 on access to education for women and girls, which contained a whole paragraph on cyberbullying.
Innovation, New and Emerging Technologies
María Paz Canales, Executive Director of Derechos Digitales, noted that technology was not neutral, and warned against automatic engagement in algorithmic decision-making. Women were not a homogenous category, she said, and noted that when it came to women and use of technology, there was too much focus on addressing how to tackle violence against women online. Whereas that focus was necessary, there should also be more focus on how to enhance women’s access to the Internet.
Titi Akinsanmi, Head of Policy and Government Relations at Google Africa, pointed out to amplified challenges and a platform that made it exponentially more painful to be a woman. The question was how to ensure that new technologies enhanced women’s rights and did not degrade them any further. Women and girls should be able to design for themselves in order to be part of the processes that addressed new technologies.
Désirée Miloshevic, Senior Public Policy and International Affairs Adviser, Europe for Afilias, highlighted the issues of technology gender bias design and algorithmic decision-making, as many modern technological devices were designed by men for men. At the same time, the coding changes in open-source repositories suggested by women had higher approval than those submitted by men, but only if the gender of the proponent was unidentifiable. There was a need to work on neutral and non-biased algorithmic decision-making. The consequences of algorithmic decision-making were serious due to preconceived notions and prejudices.
What Needs to be Done to Take the Gender and Internet Governance Agenda to the Next Level
Lise Fuhr, Director General of the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association, said that although diversity in governance was extremely important, women continued to be under-represented: they were 15 per cent less likely to use the Internet than men, while only 30 per cent of the staff in telecommunication industries in Europe were women. It was important to have women in high-level posts in the Internet governance field as they provided role models to young girls; having role models was a good start but it must be supported with the right policies.
Avri Doria, of the Internet Research Task Force and the Human Rights Protocol Consideration Research Group, outlined the progress made in the Forum in integrating gender in its work and ensuring gender balance and in its leadership positions. Still more needed to be done, especially outside of policy arenas, for example in the engineering world which remained largely male-dominated.
Chat Garcia Ramilo, Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications, recalled that the gender report card had been introduced in the Forum in 2011, and that it would be interesting to see what progress had been made since then. In the 2017 Forum, 37 per cent of the panellists were women, but gender issues were not yet fully mainstreamed. Reporting built consciousness, and it was important to bring women and their voices in national and regional IGFs.
Lissette Perez Perez, from the Directorate of International Relations and Foreign Trade, Ministry of Communications of Cuba, said that the inclusion of women in the development agenda in Cuba was one of the most successful social projects. There was no gender divide in the access to technological education. Cuba was focused on assuming commitments made at the World Summit on Information Society, and including women in discussions about digital technologies.
Tara Dunham, Canada Global Advisory Council, said that the Government of Canada had just announced its Feminist Agenda, and the Government continued to regard gender equality as a priority. There should be a human rights-based approach to gender and that agenda should be pushed further. Violence against women online should be on the international agenda. The role of governments in the rollout of artificial intelligence was to protect human rights.
On the last day of the 2017 Forum, Thursday, 21 December, the audiences will have an opportunity to engage in a dialogue on the process of digitization and digital transformation in the session Digital transformation: how do we shape its socio-economic and labour impacts for good? at 10 a.m. in Room XVII. At 3.p.m., the participants will gather in the Assembly Hall for a stock-taking segment and to officially close the twelfth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum. A detailed programme of all sessions, workshops and parallel events on the last day of the Forum can be found here.
For use of the information media; not an official record