How should future technologies and platforms like social media be designed if we are to ensure they are inclusive and equitable, and therefore open to everyone? Two projects funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s “Reducing Inequalities Through Intersectional Practice” program address precisely this question.
The organizations Chayn and End Cyber Abuse have been working together to generate a series of political and technological solutions aimed at preventing digital forms of gender-based violence and ensuring survivors have access to support and a safe environment. Activists from the feminist organization Superrr Lab drafted a set of principles for the equitable and sustainable design of technology policy and digitalization.
“Devising scenarios and visions for an inclusive digital future is important to us,” explains Julia Kloiber from Superrr. She says this also involves challenging prevailing narratives.
“This faster-higher-farther narrative needs to be transformed into one of sustainability, inclusivity, and a better and more equitable kind of technology.”
According to Kloiber, Superrr Lab’s first step was to reach out to the relevant target groups and engage with them—a step that is far too often overlooked in the political sphere: “There’s just not enough awareness of the problem,” says Kloiber, “there are only a handful of policymakers who are actually in contact with marginalized groups.” However, Kloiber argues that involving these figures in the process from the very beginning is indispensable to building an equitable digital future — a point that is also emphasized by project manager Nushin Yazdani, who exchanged ideas with researchers, activists, and designers as part of the project: “We began with the question: What would have to change for the internet to become a space where everyone could feel comfortable? We need some sort of manifesto that addresses the question of what an equitable technology policy might look like.”
Over the course of several workshops involving a total of 25 people, including stakeholders from marginalized groups, Superrr was ultimately able to devise a series of potential steps towards achieving equitable public digital spaces. The 12 principles for feminist digitalization, which were devised with the financial support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, will now be fine-tuned and discussed with decision makers from the spheres of politics, business, and civil society.
Hera Hussain, founder of Chayn, an organization that advocates for survivors of gender-based violence, has had similar experiences: “The perspectives and voices of survivors need to be incorporated through the entire process of developing technologies and platforms, from beginning to end.” Hussain has worked with Chayn since 2013, focusing on the issue of sexual violence and providing support to survivors of abuse. She wants to know which of the principles ensuring spaces in the offline world to be safe and inclusive can be translated into the digital world: “How can we employ the same principles online in order to ensure we respond to traumatic experiences in an appropriate way?”
The result of her enquiry is a set of design principles compiled in the field guide “Orbits”, which aims to assist tech companies, NGOs, designers, researchers, and policymakers in identifying relevant challenges and shortcomings in terms of how they deal with digital forms of gender-based violence. The objective here is to empower all parties to develop a sound practice for preventing abuse committed through and with technology.
The parties involved in the two projects have also identified a number of policy recommendations and demands. “We have to move away from an individualistic perspective,” says Kloiber, “we tend to overlook the ramifications new technologies can have for society as a whole.” It is therefore imperative, she says, that a risk assessment be carried out for society as a whole. She cites Facebook as an example: “The corporation also has profiles for people who don’t even have a Facebook account, because they’re tracked via their friends.” This phenomenon is not covered by the current legislation, for example by the GDPR — because it only applies to direct users.
In the Orbits field guide, Chayn and End Cyber Abuse developed design principles that provide intersectional, trauma-sensitive, and survivor-centered responses to technology-enabled gender based violence (TGBV) - including meaningful co-creation practices with survivors.
Nishma Jethwa from End Cyber Abuse, a collective of human rights lawyers, researchers, and activists, says that the process of passing laws, as well as the drafting of policy and legal measures, should always be carried out in close consultation with the people who are directly impacted by them. “To do this, we need to look at policymaking through an intersectional lens,” Jethwa insists. Because that would lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the experiences of survivors of tech-based violence, “including the question of how gender intersects with other identities.” But according to Jethwa, this has not been the case thus far: “As a result, many incidents of abuse are not properly addressed at the political or legal level, and survivors simply don’t get justice.” Or laws might unintentionally criminalize free sexual expression and bodily autonomy, with devastating outcomes for certain minority groups.
“The perspectives and voices of survivors need to be incorporated through the entire process of developing technologies and platforms, from beginning to end.”
Hera Hussain would like to see policymakers holding technology companies to an even higher standard: “They should be analyzing and preventing potential adverse outcomes from the outset.” She says there should be consequences for companies that allow perpetrators to go unpunished — for example, in cases where private pictures of other people are downloaded and used for blackmail. “The repercussions of this kind of act can be extreme,” she says, “people lose their jobs, there’s psychological fallout, your entire life can be turned on its head by something like this.” Companies need to be committed to ensuring robust security and to implementing measures that prevent abuse at the technological level while also systematically blocking the perpetrators of that abuse. This is another domain in which the “Orbit” field guide is intended to provide inspiration for policymakers. Working toward an equitable digital future.
Read more about the Support Program “Reducing Inequalities Through Intersectional Practice”
The “Orbit” field guide is available for download on Chayn's website.
On the website of Superrr Lab you will find the Feminist Tech Principles.