Body & Data organized Feminist Tech Exchange (FTX), 2023 with young people, human rights defenders and activists, digital enthusiast on June 2023, which fostered extensive discussions on the digital rights. The workshop was the gathering of diverse range identities and background that contributed to bring wide range of perspectives. Here, we share the major discussions by the participants regarding the digital rights context. With a specific focus on digital security, participants actively engaged in conversations that intertwined digital rights issues with their own personal experiences. The key areas explored during these discussions encompassed technology and internet accessibility, inclusivity, freedom of expression and association within online platforms, the political ramifications of data privacy, and the aspects of surveillance.
Importance of equitable access to digital spaces for all was one of major focus of the discussion. According to the participants, the digital spaces that we currently engage in is not accessible for many groups with physical, mental disability, older adults and digitally illiterate due to its complex and exclusive structural design.
Accessibility was discussed in 3 major concepts:
Lack of access to medium (Phone, laptop) and internet
Participants explained that the first barrier to access to digital space and internet is the lack of access to mediums to reach the internet. This is especially true when it comes to the marginalized groups like women, person with disabilities and people with weak economic background. The participants emphasized the challenges faced by Persons with Disabilities in terms of accessing digital spaces. Persons with Disabilities often require additional support and accommodations to navigate the internet effectively. For instance, individuals with visual impairments may rely on text-to-speech applications to access online content. The participants pointed out that though most of the people has access to smart phone but not everyone has access to the internet. Some of the factors that contribute to it are expensive-recurring data cost, lack of reliable internet and data signal in many parts of Nepal. The lack of internet also affects the offline spaces. The participants recalled times during the COVID-19 lockdown when many students especially from rural area could not attend the online classes due to lack of proper internet access. The lack of access to internet can also lead to isolation for person with hearing impairments as they lose the medium to communicate (video call for SLI). The participants also noted that persons without citizenship have more difficulty in acquiring basic needs such as to buy sim cards and create bank accounts. This limits their access to the internet.
Lack of adequate and quality internet access
The participants shared that many do not have access to quality digital spaces. The participants were able to identify the gender disparity in this. Mothers, in particular, face the neglect of their digital needs, as they often have to rely on hand-me-down smartphones from other family members, rarely having the opportunity to use new smartphones. Consequently, this limited access to up-to-date technology hampers their ability to access high-quality internet services. Furthermore, participants emphasized that the absence of features such as alt text and captions hinder the quality of internet experience for individuals with disabilities. This lack of accessibility features leads to crucial information being skipped or overlooked when individuals with disabilities explore the internet. It was also brought up that the implementation of shadow bans significantly diminishes the quality of content accessible to users, with marginalized communities, such as the queer community, being disproportionately affected by this practice.
Insufficient access to digital literacy
The participants identified a significant issue regarding the lack of digital literacy among general users, even when they have access to devices and the internet. Many individuals are unaware of how to effectively utilize these resources in digital space. To illustrate this point, one participant shared an example of not knowing how to lock her phone, resulting in unauthorized access by family members. The discussion further highlighted the limited availability of basic digital security knowledge and how to access relevant resources. Notably, digital illiteracy is more prevalent within marginalized communities. It was discussed that queer individuals and Persons with Disabilities often lack digital literacy due to the lack of access to relevant knowledge and tools. Existing digital literacy resources tend to cater primarily to the needs of the dominant group, thereby excluding and neglecting the specific requirements of marginalized communities.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The participants expressed deep concerns regarding the state of freedom of expression, emphasizing the prevalence of verbal, mental, and emotional abuse targeting individuals who express themselves on various platforms. They particularly highlighted the issue of penalizing freedom of expression, especially in relation to discussions involving politicians and artist, journalist and more prone to that. They shared instances where public figures were arrested for openly expressing their views on politicians, revealing the restrictive environment surrounding such discourse. Furthermore, the participants underlined the importance of acknowledging the multiple identities individuals hold, including caste, class, geographical location, sexuality, citizenship status, and Indigenous identity, in order to have a comprehensive understanding of how freedom of expression is perceived. They noted that online spaces often uphold only the dominant narrative, stigmatizing and marginalizing “others.” For instance, women and Persons with Disabilities are discouraged from expressing their sexual needs and desires, with their sexuality remaining largely unaddressed. Attempts to express such topics are frequently met with online violence and condemnation. Individuals who do not conform to conventional gender roles and expressions often face derogatory remarks and are subjected to multiple forms of violence.
The participants expressed concerns about how those in positions of power and privilege have created an environment where general users are unable to assert their personal needs and demands through expression. They highlighted the common occurrence of media, including songs, memes, and art, being censored if they deviate from the dominant narrative of “morality” or challenge existing power dynamics. The participants also discussed the double standards prevailing in online society, where different pedestals exist for evaluating and responding to online posts. They provided an example wherein women who post, “feminist contents” on social media are often met with resistance and violence, while men who do the same are viewed more positively. This curtailment of expression is more evident in marginalized communities, such as Persons with Disabilities, queer individuals, and women activists.
DATA PRIVACY AND SURVEILLENCE
The participants discussed the importance of data privacy and expressed concerns about surveillance practices. They also highlighted the potential misuse of surveillance, particularly targeting marginalized communities.
The participants also discussed how the gender-based discrimination is reflected in surveillance and data privacy practices. They noted that daughters face stricter surveillance compared to sons, with their whereabouts and personal lives constantly intruded upon, making it difficult for them to safeguard their data. They also expressed concerns about the lack of respect for data privacy when survivors of sexual assault speak out, as survivors’ personal details are often made public while the perpetrators go largely unnoticed. The participants emphasized the risks of data misuse, particularly for creating fraudulent social media profiles. They highlighted that marginalized communities, including women, Persons with Disabilities, and queer individuals, are more vulnerable to such threats. Women with Disabilities experience heightened surveillance and are frequently denied their right to self-determination, affecting their choices regarding their mobility, relationships, and clothing.
Another concern raised by the participants was the sharing of passwords among couples. While seen as a gesture of trust, it simultaneously compromises privacy and increases surveillance. It was further discussed that this can vary according to the context and situation of an individual but nevertheless, the risks associated cannot be ignored.
The participants also addressed the violation of data privacy that occurs in professional settings. They discussed how institutions often require individuals to provide their personal social media accounts as a prerequisite for job applications, educational posts, fellowships, and similar opportunities. This practice was recognized as a form of surveillance and invasion of data privacy by the participants. Individuals working in the glamour industry face even greater challenges in protecting their personal data, as they are frequently subjected to stalking and the publication of their private information, which is exploited for increased online engagement.
Furthermore, the participants shared concerns about heavy surveillance in schools, where teachers confiscate and intrude upon students’ mobile phones. One participant recounted a common occurrence in their school where teachers would compel students to disclose their social media passwords if they suspected the students were engaged in romantic relationships. This breach of privacy extended to reading personal chats and pressuring students to end their relationships.
The participants highlighted the risks associated with providing personal information such as phone numbers, addresses, and gender identities when attending programs. They discussed how the Election Commission of Nepal made voters’ information publicly accessible, raising concerns about privacy. Additionally, the participants expressed concerns regarding the increasing demand for CCTV installations by local governments, which would amplify government surveillance. They also pointed out other means through which the government monitors individuals, including National Identification (NID), credit card information, PAN numbers, and more. These forms of data privacy breaches and surveillance pose heightened risks of online and offline violence for marginalized communities.
One of the recurring themes during the discussions was “inclusion”. The participants pointed out how inclusion has taken the form of “tokenism” where diversity of the participants in a program is prioritized over the actual values of inclusion. The participants noted that it is important to include individuals with marginalized identity as it can help to address the real issues faced in the ground. It can help bridge understanding between various issues. It can address systemic biases and create opportunities for mutual understanding and collaboration.
The impact of tokenism and lack of inclusion can be felt in terms of meaningful and effective representation especially of the marginalized groups such as Indigenous Peoples, Person with Disabilities and Queer peoples. The participants also discussed the impact of demining representation of Person with Disabilities in the movies and internet. Participants discussed that the glorification of their struggles often results in the stereotyping of Persons with Disabilities. It is important to have positive representation of marginalized community which can be possible by ensuring dignified inclusion of the members of the community itself. When inclusion is prioritized, programs can become more responsive to the needs and concerns of people. This not only fosters a sense of belonging and respect but also contributes to the development of more effective and equitable solutions in regards to discrimination, unequal access to technology, and exclusion from meaningful participation.
Facilitated by kabita bahing and Shripa Pradhan
Documented by Nuva Rai