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What Would A 'Feminist Internet' Look Like?


When computer scientists were creating the World Wide Web, the entire project was steeped in optimism. Early Internet pioneers predicted a techno-utopia. You can hear it in this 1996 "Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace."


JOHN PERRY BARLOW: We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth.

MARTIN: That was John Perry Barlow, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reading the declaration. But did you notice what was missing from that list? Charlotte Jee, a reporter with MIT Technology Review, did notice something missing - gender. Decades later, social media platforms have become havens for abuse, misogyny and harassment. In a new piece for MIT's Technology Review, Charlotte Jee asks, what would a feminist Internet look like?

And Charlotte Jee is with us now to tell us more. Hello. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHARLOTTE JEE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all - and I hate to start this way, but I do have to start this way - set the problem up for us. You know, why is the Internet so toxic, especially for public-facing women? There have been many, many surveys that have shown that women in general and women of color in particular receive an excessive portion of the online abuse, which isn't to say that other people don't, but women are particularly targeted. So why is the Internet so toxic for women?

JEE: Yeah. I mean, it's a really good question. A lot of the problem, to be honest with you, is around women who have a platform and sexists who see that and then get enraged or frustrated by this. And as I say in the piece, you know, it's the same message, which is, a woman is saying something that I'm finding uncomfortable, and so I'm going to get her to shut up. And the way that this is done is through trolling campaigns, through people that kind of ask repetitive questions to people - just people that are making, you know, life a bit more uncomfortable for women. So it's not a nice place to hang out.

MARTIN: Well, so - there are so many factors you write about in the piece that seem to contribute to an overwhelming Internet culture - I mean, the fact that venture capital money goes overwhelmingly to men. Women make up less than 20% of U.S. tech employees. But you also write that there's a - sort of a misogyny that seeps into the online experience. You bring up a concept of algorithmic discrimination. Could you just give an example of what that looks like?

JEE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, as I say in the piece, you know, if you look at Google Images, and you search schoolboy and you search schoolgirl, the first one is pretty innocuous. But for girls, it's all kind of sexualized imagery. And that's partly kind of image recognition algorithms. That's bias creeping into that process. You know, I call it, like, a self-reinforcing misogyny machine. We're taking the existing bias that exists in society, we're embedding it, and then we're kind of amplifying it. And part of that has also to do with prioritizing engagement because you know who engages a lot online? Trolls. So, you know, we're kind of almost encouraging this sort of behavior with the way that the Internet functions.

MARTIN: So let's wheel it around. We've sort of framed the problem. Let's talk about the solution. And how did you conceive of this idea of a feminist Internet? And before we get into the specifics, tell me what you mean by feminist Internet. And how did you arrive at some of these ideas?

JEE: I mean, the interesting thing about the feminist Internet movement is that it's pretty diverse. And mostly, it's just a loose collection of activists who are working on trying to redress the balance, the sort of power imbalance that's going on here. It's about pushing things away from big tech and towards individuals. So, for example, making this a more consensual relationship - which data do you want to share? Are you comfortable with certain security settings? And, you know, we do also desperately need better privacy protection, so there's also a role for politicians and regulators here.

MARTIN: Part of the piece - part of the argument of the piece is that a more feminist Internet benefits everybody and not just women. And you bring up the fitness tracking company Strava. So what happened with Strava, and what lessons might other companies take from that?

JEE: Yeah. So - yeah, it allows you to track your runs, you know, for the people that like posting their running routes online. And for a long time, you know, feminist activists and just women generally pointed out, actually, this could be used to stalk people. And they wouldn't even necessarily have to be posting this online. It's just if someone could look at their account on Strava, they could see where they're running and what times.

Strava didn't really pay much attention to this. And to be honest, that, by the way, is a theme that runs through this - activists raising issues and then basically being ignored. And then a few years later, it turned out that security researchers had discovered that you can discover where different U.S. bases are overseas by looking at the running routes of the military personnel who are stationed at those bases. So basically, they discovered something that had concerned these women was, in fact, a national security threat for the U.S. That is just, like, a microcosm and a really small example of how failing to listen to women also hurts men and society more generally.

MARTIN: You know, we're having this very calm civil conversation, as, of course, we should be. But what you're describing is infuriating. You know, how is it that - this is half the population. Why is it that the concerns of half the population are so uninteresting to these companies...

JEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That play such an important role in all of our lives? Why is it that women are being inundated not just with mean words, but with threats to rape them and eviscerate them simply because they may have a role in public life is not taken more seriously? Why is that?

JEE: Yeah. I mean, one of the activists that I spoke to - she was, like, you know, part of the problem is that these companies are founded by and run by relatively privileged men who really can't imagine what it's like to be on the receiving end of this. Also, there's been this traditional debate around free speech, when in reality it's, like, well, whose free speech? Because you're protecting the free speech of men to abuse women, but what about those women's free speech that are being chased offline?

MARTIN: What would make a difference?

JEE: Yeah. This is the question. I mean, I look in the piece at sort of the different activists who are working on different tools to try to address this. But it is a bit piecemeal. I look at stuff like there's some women who are building an app called Heard, which is, like, a completely different social network that's meant to be - designed to be a much more pleasant experience inherently, basically. I look at the app called Block Party, which helps women to better deal with harassment on Twitter.

I think, you know, we do need better regulations. I know that we can't necessarily expect those to be explicitly feminist regulations, but I do think that if we gave consumers in the U.S. better privacy protections, I think that that would be of huge benefit to women and to men, too, but also the tech companies themselves. You know, if they wanted to, they could decide that harassment is not something they're willing to tolerate because, you know, they are able to work together on issues like terrorism, child sexual abuse. And right now, it feels like they've decided that women being harassed and receiving rape threats - that kind of thing - is just, like, a cost of doing business that they're willing to pay. When it comes to threats to women's well-being, direct threats, I really do think that they can and should be doing a lot more about that.

MARTIN: That was Charlotte Jee. She is a reporter with MIT Technology Review. Her piece is titled, "A Feminist Internet Would Be Better For Everyone." Charlotte Jee, thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise with us.

JEE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTICE DER SONG, "BLEACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.