The internet is a part of our daily lives and we inhabit online spaces as much as offline spaces. While internet access is still unequally distributed on the continent, the use of mobile phones that do allow for some sort of internet connection is increasing, be it limited to Whatsapp and Facebook. In our activism and organising, because we are often living in hostile physical context, mobilising to dismantle taboos often takes the online road. We have debates and call for meetings on WhatsApp, we create communities of like-minded people on Facebook, we outreach and inform people beyond our national borders on twitter. The internet has truly allowed us to imagine the potential of the pan-african movement for women’s rights and sexual rights we dream of, but has however introduced new concerns and expanded the reach of old ones into digital spaces. This article is a summary of a side-event panel presentation done at the 40th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Gender and Privacy in the Digital Age.
The most recent report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, highlights current threats to the right to privacy in the digital age: threats enacted by States making use of of Big Data to surveil their citizens and to discriminate against citizens based on gender or gender identity and expression, threats to privacy are impacting the right to autonomy, and is linked to the infringement of other rights. The report focuses also particularly on articulating a gender perspective of the right to privacy. The Special Rapporteur foregrounded that specific type of violations of privacy impact specifically the lives of women, girls and LGBTQI people, and that these are part of a systemic set of oppressions perpetuating inequalities. While the Special Rapporteur stresses that the right to privacy can only be realised in societies who are qualified as democratic, a large portion of the infringement of this right are either facilitated by or enacted by private corporations who are by definition undemocratic.
For feminist activists, infringements to the rights to privacy is not something new. Surveillance has always been an “oppressive tool to control women’s bodies and sexual expression outside of heteronormative discourse”. In 2014, CAL contributed with 50 other activist and advocates to the elaboration of a first iteration of the Feminist Principles of the Internet. These principles are extremely useful to analyse and formulate demands when we find ourselves discussing the intersection of women’s rights, sexual rights and internet rights. While in the African context, States are often one of the main perpetrators of undue surveillance of activists, women and queers. We must, as the principle on privacy and data reminds us, pay equal attention to the surveillance practices of individuals, the private sector and non state actors. In addition to the Feminist Principles, principle 6 of the Yogyakarta Principles also helps us frame privacy issues using sexual orientation and gender identity and expression lenses.
Issues related to privacy in the digital age are directly linked to freedom of expression and freedom of association for our movements. Only a certain type of sexual speech or association is considered acceptable by policy-makers and online platform moderators. Sexual speech that perpetuates patriarchal and hetero-normative norms is embeded in our public discourse culture while speech on women’s non normative sexual lives and reproductive lives is seen as unacceptable. For women’s rights and sexual rights activists, privacy protections ensure that people engaging in this work can do so without fear of intimidation, discrimination or violence.
While most online tools we use for our activism are owned by transnational corporations based mostly in the United States of America, we must think about how these platforms can be regulated and managed in a way that takes into consideration that, as mentioned earlier, the realisation of rights can only be achieved under a democratic framework. This obviously highlights an interesting conundrum: can we trust our undemocratic States to regulate the private sector in a way that is respectful of the rights of all? Attempts like Uganda’s social media tax show us that instead of providing safer environments, State intervention can also become an impediment to access, and ultimately reinforce State undemocratic environment stifling the exchange of ideas and public debates.
On the other hand, corporations like Facebook have demonstrated time and time again that privacy is not a priority and certainly not under a profit-driven business model: for example, the platform has been quite stubborn about the implementation of its “real-name” policy, even if it has been demonstrated many times that this type of policy infringes on the right to privacy of marginalised groups such as survivors of domestic violence or LGBTQ people, as well as the opportunity for people to define their own gender identity and expression beyond the one assigned to an individual at birth. While Facebook has not demonstrated any urgency to protect the privacy of its users, the distribution of Facebook free basics, or similar deals with mobile phone operators on the continent which give free or cheap access to Facebook and WhatsApp directly impacts the marginalised and activists working in contexts where funding is an issue. As a result, activists will use free tools first, and are de facto trapped in platforms that could potentially compromised their work.
In addition, in exchange for free access users from vulnerable communities, social media platforms do collect a large amount of data on our lives, our desires and our networks. This data collection can be equated to data collection undertaken by colonial administrations to control populations. Scandals like the Cambridge Analytica story have given us one more reason to be sceptical that the data collected about us will be put to good use as data collected about women’s rights and sexual rights activism if deanonymised could lead to harassment, discrimination and violence.
In our advocacy at the intersection of women’s rights, sexual rights, and internet rights we must push for gender-responsive policies from States and corporations alike that mitigate gender-based privacy violations. Strict standards must be developed for the collection of data on marginalised communities: APC’s research From Impunity to Justice offers good recommendations in solutions to mitigate violence and violations of privacy that can be used in our activism. In addition, a group of feminists is currently working to influence an upcoming binding treaty on transnational corporations, developping discourse about the impact of these corporations on women and marginalised communities. This advocacy must include feminist concerns related to internet transnational corporations as online spaces have increasingly become an important life line for Women Human Rights Defenders working in hostile context. We definitely need to protect spaces where our movements can organise and invest in all avenues that offer us the possibility to do so, including the internet.