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Open it up! A feminist approach to knowledge building in a digital age

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Written by Anasuya Sengupta and Siko Bouterse of Whose Knowledge? and Sara Baker of APC

The internet has given us new ways of sharing information, building knowledge and shaping narratives. We can bypass traditional gatekeepers of information and expression in order to learn from each other, share our stories in the ways we choose and amplify voices that have been ignored or silenced. These are all critical aspects of feminist movement building, especially around gender-based violence. But how do we infuse the process of knowledge building with feminist politics? Who owns knowledge and what does it mean to be open?
 
Why does this matter? 75% of those online today are from the global South - yet it doesn’t feel like knowledge on the internet is centered around Asia, Africa, or Latin America. 45% of those who are online are women - yet it doesn’t feel like women’s (and feminist) knowledge significantly shapes what we read on the internet. And when a free encyclopaedia from Wikipedia is written mostly by white men from Europe and North America, it means that all platforms that use Wikipedia as a knowledge base - like Google - also suffer from the same structural imbalances.
 
So what can we do?
 
The Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPIs) are a way to frame this conversation around feminist knowledge. They help us understand why this matters to us as feminists and marginalised communities, and think about what we might do to change the way knowledge and information is created and shared online.
 
Access to information: We all have a right to “free, transparent, and open information.” But who actually has access to information online? Who creates it? When only a few have access - and the power to create information - it upholds global power imbalances, benefiting those with privilege and further marginalising those without. And yet, people use the internet to find necessary and life-saving health and safety information: for instance, those experiencing gender-based violence, living with HIV/AIDS and facing unwanted pregnancies. So that information needs to be created by those with the embodied experiences of these situations, and to be easily accessible to everyone who needs it. 
 
Take action:
Let’s create resources under open licenses using Creative Commons, so we can make our knowledge available for others to remix, translate and adapt to different contexts. This helps us all build on each other’s work, moving forward together more quickly.
 
Memory: As the Take Back the Tech! campaign call states, memory is resistance. How do we use digital memory as a way to affirm and acknowledge our histories of pain and triumph? For instance, in the past few months, women and men around the world have used the internet to share their personal stories of sexual assault and harassment and, in some cases, those stories have finally brought down powerful abusers. #MeToo, #balancetonporc, #yotambien are tapestries of painful memories, with each survivor weaving in threads that will not fade with time. It will stand as a record.
 
Take action:
Let’s use the internet to document abuses, yes, but let’s also build our shared memory banks of lessons, strategies and achievements. Honoring pioneers and risk-takers in ways that make these memories accessible and with room to add means we invite everyone to share in this knowledge. 
 
Amplification and expression: We resist with our voices. As we create records of our lives, we’re countering those in power who seek to write us out of history or benefit from reframing our stories. Less than 1% of content on the internet is in Arabic, so who is telling the story of Arabic speakers? If people with anti-LGBTQ agendas are more visible online than transwomen, who is dominating the narrative? If most Wikipedia articles on the Global South are written by users in the Global North, how limited or misguided are perceptions of people in the South? How has leaving women's contributions to internet communication technology out of mainstream history allowed people to think technology is for men and contributed to attempts to push women out of online spaces?
 
Take action:
Let’s use the internet to take control of the narratives about us and transform people's views. Rather than speaking for others, let’s support others to build their capacity to document their own knowledge, and be allies in amplifying marginalized voices. Openness, diversity, and inclusion make our movements more resilient.
 
Economy and open source:[C]apitalist logic...drives technology towards further privatisation, profit and corporate control.” But whom do you pay for your internet service, website hosting, email client and social media platforms? If you aren't paying with money, you're paying with personal data. We have no control over how proprietary software is designed and how corporations implement user policies. Who is collecting our data, and generating income from our labour?
 
Take action:
Let’s use free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) where we can. FLOSS is based on democratic principles that we feminists believe in. Let’s invest in free and feminist infrastructure that prioritises creativity, community, collaboration and shared knowledge. And let’s balance openness with safety, making space for mutual care as we prevent others from making money from our knowledge, our experiences, our trauma, our strategies and our movement.

Take action!

Learn more about openness and feminist knowledge building through our tweet chat with Whose Knowledge?, Feminism in India, Rohini Lakshané, Digital Women's Archive NorthLulú Barrera and Silethemba Mathe.
 
1 December at 17 UTC #FeministMemory
 
Whose Knowledge? is a global campaign working with marginalised communities to build and share their knowledge online. Feminism in India is an award-winning digital intersectional feminist platform. Rohini Lakshané is a technologist, Wikimedian and a public policy researcher in India. Digital Women’s Archive North is a feminist arts and heritage organisation based in the UK. Lulú Barrera is a feminist activist in Mexico and founder of Luchadoras. Silethemba Mathe is a women's rights activist and a digital security trainer in Zimbabwe. 
 
Further reading:
 

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