The Internet can be an extremely fun and empowering, paradigm. It brings together people who you lost touch with and also helps in enhancing one’s knowledge base. But since it is ever-evolving, we have to be careful of the complex problems that keep emerging in the virtual world.
Anja Kovacs, advocates democracy on the internet through her Internet Democracy Project. She talks to SheThePeople.TV about why we need to stand up to online abuse, hate speech and surveillance and make the internet a better place to be in. Some excerpts:
Democracy on Social Media
Talking about democracy on everybody’s most favourite place—social media, Anja says, “Social media has definitely helped to democratise public debate and discourse in India as elsewhere in the world. People and groups who earlier did not have a platform to share their views now have found spaces to do so.”
But she makes a pertinent point when she says “not all voices are able to be heard equally” and adds, “As online abuse shows, the inequalities that exist offline are replicated online. So, while social media might have contributed in making the debate more democratic, there remains much space for improvement –the most marginalised voices continue to be the ones most likely to be stifled.”
Kovacs started her project in 2011 as an initiative that focuses on creating an internet that supports freedom of expression, democracy and social justice in India and beyond.
“Our priority is not safety as an end-goal in itself, but a means of empowerment. That is why our emphasis is slightly different from many other groups that work on this issue.”
Surveillance and its Fallouts
“Surveillance practices, whether by governments, businesses or people, have increased massively in number and reach in recent years. But it has proven to be really challenging to get people to understand the harms of surveillance in the digital age,” says Anja.
Elaborating surveillance with an example, she points out, have you ever noticed that after you finish browsing a particular shopping website, you start seeing the same items that you browsed in little ‘suggestion’ box on social media and other websites. This is a form of surveillance very common and seldom targeted.
She adds, “The policing of norms tends to lead to the replication of existing structures of inequality more often than not. It becomes much harder to speak freely against a norm which you believe is unjust if you believe that you are constantly being watched. Surveillance intends to make people fall in line, and often, that is what we will do.”
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“When surveillance starts to infiltrate so many aspects of our lives, we really need to start thinking about whether there shouldn't be certain restrictions on it in a democratic society.”
Kovacs recently launched Gendering Surveillance to bring the harms of surveillance closer home. She shares, “Although the digital age may have further deepened the scrutiny to which women are subjected, women have always been under stringent surveillance - by actors ranging from partners and parents to the state. And as we all know –from our own experiences and those of the women we know –this has shaped, and harmed, women’s lives in multiple ways. Gendering Surveillance, thus, seemed like a great starting point to help people see more clearly the impact that surveillance can have in their own lives.”
As part of the project, the research found that surveillance is really about policing norms and how it affects every single one of us on the internet. The powerful decide the norms and we have to follow it like during the times we don’t write what we really think about because we think there could erupt backlash.
‘Indian Legal Framework is Good’
While this may be surprising to many, but Anja’s research has shown that India’s legal framework is actually quite good. “Our priority is not safety as an end-goal in itself, but a means of empowerment. That is why our emphasis is slightly different from many other groups that work on this issue.”
“Certainly, we do not need more censorship law, though the Internet Democracy Project does advocate for stronger privacy protections - for all Indians in fact, not only for women. What needs more attention, however, is the implementation of existing laws. Also, we have argued for long that there needs to be far more attention for non-legal methods to fight online abuse,” she said.
Sexist Trolling to Shut Women Up
There are one too many instances of women being constantly trolled on the social media or men being trolled bringing their mothers, sisters and daughters in the picture. Anja says sexist 'trolling' (which we prefer to call abuse) is really aimed at shutting women up, at making women (or at least some women) retreat from the public space.
“Again, those targeted are, especially those who do not fall within the parameters of dominant norms - either because of their background, or because of what they say or do.”
She gives an example of feminists who are often targets of “significant volumes of abuse”. Anja believes it reduces the space to have open and informed debates in which all people, not just a small section, can freely express themselves.
“The government likes to say that people's silence on issues such as data-retention is an indication of consent. What the reception of our work makes clear is, that this is not correct. People are simply silent because nobody has explained these issues to them in a way that connects with their lives."
Response towards Gendering Surveillance
Talking about how her work on Gendering Surveillance has been received by the public, Anja said, “The government likes to say that people's silence on issues such as data retention is an indication of consent. What the reception of our work makes clear is that that is not correct. People are simply silent because nobody has explained these issues to them in a way that connects with their lives. As Gendering Surveillance shows, when we do just that, people do get the enormous and often negative ramifications of the shifts that are happening, and slowly start to speak up.
Educate yourself about the Internet
Anja advises the parents to not buy into “simplistic advice of the 'don't do this, don't do that' kind. “Instead, educate yourself on how the technology works, on what threats exist, and on which threats you and the children in your care might be particularly vulnerable to and why. Then, teach your children to navigate the online space by encouraging them to ask those same questions and adapt their behaviour accordingly.”
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