By Sonia Randhawa

This article is part of a special edition to commemorate the life and work of academic, activist, feminist and, for many of us, friend Heike Jensen.


One of the main threads running through Heike’s work was a challenge to the dominant narrative of a benign gender-neutral technology, that is both a-political and without structural bias. Resisting dichotomies that posed problems in zero-sum terms, a pay-off between rights and security, for instance, led to looking at the ways in which the debates around issues such as censorship and privacy are constructed, and challenging the bases of the debates themselves. By probing the manner in which gender is built into the way we discuss and use technology, her articles are helping us evolve new ways of imagining a feminist internet.

In this article, talks with Anita Gurumurthy from IT For Change about gender and privacy. Anita worked with Heike in the Gender and Citizenship in the Information Society research programme. Thanks in particular to WikiLeaks and the Snowden revelations, there is increased awareness that governments are surveilling their citizens, even if there is a dearth of action to rein in this surveillance. Do you think there has been an equivalent moment, or series of actions, for corporate surveillance?

Anita Gurumurthy (AG): The state has always held information about citizens. The power of the state to track its citizens, and its disciplining and discourses of obedience, are well understood historically. What Snowden did was reveal the panspectronism that marks state power today – a shift from the panopticon gaze under which some were surveyed to an always-everywhere-everybody surveillance. But Snowden also pointed loud and clear to network power – the complicity of tech companies in the grand alliance of rich countries and their corporations – for the NSA’s ruthlessly clear plan to dramatically increase mastery of the global network The fact is that centralisation of power in the network society is unprecedented. We are witness to relationships of convenience in the global arena that reveal the shifting contours of power – some that we have the tools to recognise with our historical-social memory and some that we can’t recognise nor name. The informational state we are able to see as the product of new anxieties. But the power of the corporation in the network age is less evident to our epistemic sensibilities. Research by a Swiss-based think tank has shown how about 150 companies control the world, and they own interlocking stakes of one another!

Corporate surveillance may seem benign. It may even be reduced to an irritant – too many calls from those who believe I can buy, to those silly ads that I must see. The extraordinary intrusion into our lives by companies that seek to watch and second guess our lives is, as William Davies who wrote the Happiness Industry says, a device of control. It is about power that is diffuse, invisible even if ever- present, and frighteningly friendly. Davies talks about how the intent of such surveillance is to release “contagions” – ideas, to infect and thus expand control over the network. It is an elephant in the room. The crisis is here but it seems that another Snowden moment is unlikely. Even though the limits of advanced capitalism were more than clear with the financial crisis in the US, and the insolence of the 1% has been called out, we seem to be somewhat condemned to live life as self-obsessed narcissistic objects of commodified desire that network power conjures up. Data control through corporate surveillance is the disciplining of society by powerful nations and their corporations or should I say, powerful corporations and their benefactor-governments.

Data is the most valuable resource, and the network-data complex – the powerful alliances controlling the world today – has access to the most microcosmic of social realities, enlisting as it does the willing subsumption of all of us into the web of totalitarian capitalism. Monsanto is sitting on top of micro-level data on landholding in the US. It would be most reasonable to assume that the future of land-use in the US will be tied closely to the whims of Monsanto and its social engineering of agriculture.

Many of us come from a tradition of media and communication activism where even ten years ago, media freedom meant saying no to regulation. Our fights vis-a-vis the panspectron follow from our instinct to push back against state excess and impunity. But the writing on the wall – about corporate surveillance – is about our sociality under siege. Everything we do, adds to economic power. We are – as data in the network – part of the new economic structure, anxious participants. We are no doubt resisting and subverting power, but still unable to seek and articulate the political-institutional forms of democratic global arrangements that can counter network hegemony. We are unable to admit that governance of the internet requires us to understand the economics of the network-data complex.

That eureka moment on corporate surveillance is not going to come. We need to get out of the current impasse and strategise what we need to do through our resistance politics. Last year, when developing countries asked for and moved a resolution on a binding treaty on business and human rights in the HR Council, developed nations voted against it. Sadly, even key civil society groups in the Internet Governance arena wrote against this move to seek a treaty or remained silent and neutral. This is classical political economy and feminist activism and theory need to seek recourse in democratic governance frameworks. The fight is not simple, but its parameters are. What has changed in best practice, from either governments or companies, in relation to privacy, in the last five years?

AG: The Human Rights Council has recently created the mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy. The Council has recognised “the global and open nature of the Internet and the rapid advancement in information and communications technology as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms” affirming that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. The “right to privacy” would also mean the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary or unlawful interference, as set out in article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. One estimate ranks Spain, Czech Republic, Iceland, Norway and Slovenia as the top 5 countries that best protect their citizens’ right to privacy.

While the state easily slips into its favourite rhetoric of ‘national security’ to legitimise its privacy violations, corporations have most often than not sought to side-step the issue. As I said earlier, economic structures across all industries and social domains are predicated upon the structures of data value and the expropriation of data for private gain. Looking for corporate best practices in this scenario, would be naive. As Tarleton Gillespie observes so eloquently, online companies carefully position themselves to users, clients, advertisers, and policymakers, making strategic claims about how their place in the information landscape should be understood. Deploying the term ‘platform’ in both their populist appeals and their marketing pitches – sometimes as technical platforms, sometimes as platforms from which to speak, sometimes as platforms of opportunity, they slip between identities, thus pursuing immunity from liability under law and to be seen as champions of free speech. What we have empirically seen so far, is that attempts to assuage privacy anxieties of users have at best been carefully crafted tactics in brand management that window dress grievous violations. The latest privacy and security update from google allows you to erase all your previous data, but at your own peril, issuing an ominously kind warning that “the speed and accuracy of your searches or voice commands may suffer” if you opt for privacy. The rhetoric of ‘user experience’ is paramount in public relations management and while there may be a confounding number of options to personalise your settings, you will not be allowed to turn-off advertising. Of course you can ‘choose’ from more options for advertising to make it all ‘relevant’ to you! Such choice, as Nadine Moawad powerfully reminded us in the Inclusion in the Network Society roundtable we held, extends to fixing your gender identity from “the 52 different options that Facebook gives you, when you sign up.” What about the gender dimension to the manner in which information is gathered and how it is used?

AG: The possibility to segment data in ways that allow highly sophisticated micro-control is what sets apart the surveillance machinery of the network society. The know-how to mine, curate and manage data and deploy data patterns to serve capitalism generates and propagates a Foucauldian ‘regime of truth’. In the hyper-personalised consumption environments today, a multiplicity of patriarchies arising from informational control coexist. Race, caste, location and more are harnessed in mind-boggling permutations to package and reaffirm gendered hierarchies in the online environment. While women and people of non-normative gender orders continue to claim online spaces for self assertion and resistance, pervasive patriarchy in the network flourishes through its ever expanding mutations. As has been observed in recent scholarly work, one way by which capitalism reproduces is by maintaining its own internal varieties of anti-capitalism, ensuring thus that the justification for capitalism is not reducible to its purely economic and monetary rationales. It is not as if dominant narratives of the Net are not challenged. But the counter-narratives are not able to create a singular world view that can produce a new regime of truth – a shared interpretation of reality that has moral authority.

The violation of privacy is primarily a meta-narrative of body and sexuality. As Heike’s work for the CITIGEN research program shows, surveillance has been gendered through history. The nation-state has managed reproduction of its citizens in ideological and material ways through a control over women’s bodies, something that it now does with renewed vigour. The hyper-sexualised online environment normalises extreme forms of exploitation in the name of freedom to consume. One research in the Philippines found that parents of children used in cyber-sex rackets believed that virtual sex did not really implicate the actual body! The surveillance machinery in the network society tracks not only to abstract commodified sociality for global economic value processes, but to silence and erase that which is inadmissible in the network-data complex. Facebook pages of the Pink Chaddi campaign by feminists in India attracted heavy trolling and were subsequently simply shut down. Data flows in the internet may be intertwined in overlapping and competing gender discourses – but the normative critiques of patriarchal capitalism have not really produced a wider social agreement against the dominant regimes of gender truth. There seems to be a perception among many feminist activists in the Global South that these issues are primarily issues for women in the North – aided, no doubt, by the fact that there is disproportionate coverage of scandals involving Hollywood stars and the like. How does surveillance affect women that you work with or other women in the Global South? Are there different ways that different levels of surveillance (in the family, corporate or government surveillance) affect them?

AG: Yes. The notion of privacy seems to suggest violations may not target all women or all people. In the new political environment, online activists and women bloggers are being increasingly silenced. The recent ruling by the Supreme Court in India, striking down the draconian provisions of the IT Act that empowered the state to arrest anyone for ‘offensive’ postings online, has been seen by many as a victory for free speech. But state- and community-based surveillance of girls and women in the name of nationalist and communitarian sentiment shows amazing tenacity. Newer forms of surveillance are really worrisome. The profiling of the poor, especially rural poor women, for introducing new ‘bottom of the pyramid’ strategies, is critical to emerging markets. The micro-finance industry’s diverse range of products slice the poor into various market segments in pursuit of unimaginably unethical profiteering. Women, who are first generation users of digital technology (and a large majority of women in the global south are first generation users), lack awareness about the surveillance industry. There is little or no public debate on data governance and traditional feminist movements have not owned agenda that challenge structural injustice in the network society. What directions do you think research and practice need to take? Given the multiple burdens many women carry, are there promising avenues to offer simple solutions to the problem of surveillance? What role do we need activists playing to address some of these issues?

AG: There is no simple solution perhaps, and this is not to sound glib. The struggle that women are waging against the takeover of their lands, their forests, their commons and to resist the unjust terms of liberalisation policies that have decimated public systems, reveals the material-semiotic tactics of powers that be. I do understand that every user must know how to address her security online and this in some limited sense is about personally feeling empowered to deal with your gadget and its privacy settings. But the right to privacy cannot be divorced from normative discussions on internet commons, nor can it be realised without international law and global governance of data flows and data architectures. The idea of ‘communication rights’ must embrace the notion of justice in the network society. Continuities with the global justice movement are vital.

The feminist movements have not been able to claim leadership in the resistance politics with respect to digital technologies. This is despite the extraordinary contribution of feminist scholars to theories on media and communications; activists working on women’s access to information, community media, and right to freedom of expression. The intellectual and mobilisation work to be done in this regard is considerable. It calls for independent research, not influenced by statist nor corporatist agenda. Exposing the dominant narrative is part of the painful but vital task of deconstructing currently authoritative discourse through feminist critique.
The constructed nature of social reality must be examined and interpreted from where we stand – as alienated commodities in the network, but also as agents who are, and are capable of, using that very subject position for a politics of resistance. The economics of data, and the configurations of networks of hegemony are vital arenas for deeper study. Celebrating subversion is important, but it is one part of the bigger project of resistance. Activist scholars and scholar activists must work to build authority for a new regime of truth. How and where the comforts of selective and disconnected political engagements end, and what may be the theories, configurations and practices of a renewed ‘networked resistance’, comprise some of the immediate questions for activism.

Sonia Randhawa is a current Board Member of Isis International.

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