We have been hearing a lot of discussions around Indian women and social media after the Narendra Modi-Mark Zuckerberg interface in the Facebook Townhall at Menlo Park last month. In Facebook Townhall Modi pointed out the importance of women and the role of social media in a democracy. In IIT Delhi Facebook Townhall on Oct 28th Zuckerberg marketed his net neutrality violating internet.org (now re-branded as Free Basics) as a connectivity solution for India’s poor. Internet.org advertisements are heavily plied on TVs, cinema halls, and Facebook timelines in India, highlighting benefits to the rural women on getting access to the internet. But women’s voices are largely absent in this discussion, when marketing this handful of websites called as internet.org/Free Basics as pro-poor, rural woman’s ‘freedom of expression tool’, and trying to get a free ride with Government’s Digital India Program.
The Access Question
So far, most of the Women’s movement discussions in India surrounding Woman’s rights in the Information Society were mainly around the question of access to the Internet. Even though gender-gap still exits, this scenario is rapidly changing with the increasing market penetration of Internet-enabled smartphones. As per a report of Internet and Mobile Association of India, the country has 353 million Internet users as of June 2015. Of this, 269 million access the Internet at least once a monthi. India had about 116 million Internet-enabled smartphones at the end of 2014, a number that’s expected to more than triple to 369 million by 2018, according to a recent report by KPMG & IAMAIii. In addition, there are ongoing government efforts to build rural connectivity infrastructure via national optical fiber network (NOFN) which is set to link 600 million rural citizens of India across 2.5 lakh gram panchayats of India spread over 6,600 blocks and 631 districts through a broadband optical fiber network. In the first phase, it will cover 50,000 gram panchayats, with the balance 200,000 panchayats expected to be covered in a phased manner by 2016iii. This growth of Internet access possibilities is the main attraction point for social media giants like Facebook to catch them first for their market expansion. As of today, Facebook business center advertisement metrics show there is 137 million potential reach for Facebook in India, and out of that 33 million are women accounts.
This rapidly changing connectivity scene is very important. Mobile phones are becoming the first computing device in the hands of many Indians. Zuckerberg’s internet.org (now re-branded as Free Basics) is a project to give a handful of websites free of cost for Indian users via Telecom’s operator partnerships. The critics say that the ‘poor people acquisition department’ of Facebook cares only about increasing their user base. But while access is a noble goal, the question in front of us is what are these new internet users connecting to? A rich, open, and diverse Web – or just a handful of websites and apps? If the “Indian poor” connect to a Web that allows for only limited and passive use, we risk jeopardizing the world’s most valuable public resource – the internet. Nobody is mentioning about information/expression needs of the Indian woman in the digital space and they use women in consumer category description to market net neutrality violating limited subsets of Internet in the name of ‘women empowerment’.
Women, Social Media and the State
At the same time the last two years showed very powerful protests originating in Indian social media spaces including Facebook and Twitter with active involvement of women in leadership roles. The 2014 Kiss of Love protestsiv questioned the right wing moralists and asserted a creative way of protesting hate mongering and moral policing just like Pink Chaddy campaignv did in 2007. ‘Red Alert: You’ve Got a Napkin’ campaignvi fought with menstrual taboos and built awareness on prejudices and politics around menstruation. When the right wing tried to limit women’s right to travel in public transport on “impure days” during festival season with pilgrims, this campaign succeeded in reclaiming the space. Women in social media played an active role in all such mobilizations.
The uncensored space for expression is very important for any democracy, and historically in India that space for women is controlled by patriarchy. Now the medium of expressing an opinion has changed to social networks and many women are fearlessly using them for political /personal expressions. And as many have already observed, now the insecure right-wing elements, who have joined hands with patriarchal violence, are trying to use this space for attacking and preventing bold political expressions of women. This is apparent from responses to many of these bold political expressions, starting with Kiss of Love protests. For women who engage in public discussions through the Internet, the risk of harassment experienced online is high. There were many instances of such harassments such as the rape threat on Kavita Krishnan on a Rediff chat, #selfiewithdaughter backlash on Kavita Krishnan and Shruti Seth, mob lynching of Preetha G.P., a Kerala woman who posted a remark on A.P.J. Abdul Kalam right after his death on Facebook. The perpetrators of this kind of patriarchal violence in social media seem to be insisting that, only women with “a good Indian girl” image can survive in this social media space. Social media in fact has helped many women to express their bold opinions and expressions to be heard loud and wide. The orchestrated attacks against many bold women, now clearly show that the focus is on silencing these women observers in social networks. Along with this, there are the chilling effects on freedom of expression by using draconian provisions in India’s IT act. The Supreme Court of India removed 66A provisions in 2015 March, which was a threat to Freedom of Expression, following the Shreya Singal Vs Union of India case.
During the recent capital punishment discussions related to the hanging of Yakub Memon, similar to the control of print media by the state, there were several instances of pages and posts disappearing from Facebook. The Kiss of Love page got permanently removed for changing its profile picture with a big ‘No’ mark in which letter ‘O’ was designed as a hangman’s noose, saying that it violated community standards. Pictures with ‘Don’t hang Yakub Memon’ got removed and FB profiles from which those pictures were posted also got suspended. Kiss of Love page was restored later after a few people initiated a Twitter campaign and contacted Facebook India policy head. But Facebook failed to explain the reason for censorship. It is believed that it was a social media censorship in the interest of the Indian Government.
Last month, just before Modi’s Facebook Headquarters visit, Indian Government’s Attorney General argued before Supreme Court that ‘privacy’, a major component of digital rights of women on the Internet, is not a fundamental right and that after two decades of case law granting fundamental status to “right to privacy” must be reconsideredvii. Two Indian states recently ordered the shutdown of SMS and mobile Internet services in the face of public protests and unrest. In short, along with increased access to Internet, new threats to freedom of expression and the right to privacy are emerging.
Facebook is the one and only platform for expression in internet.org and they use it as the way for embedding India’s poor onto the Facebook platform. As the Sangh Parivar redefines sexuality and culture and creates a moral policing system, Modi’s silence resonates longer. The ‘protection needed asexual women’ images are esteemed (Modi’s Mother narrative, #selfiewithdaughter twitter campaign call), but the wife, the independent woman, is lost in silence.
Technology can create connectivity but it is only expression and communication that creates meaning. Facebook limits that clearly within its platform and Sangh Parivar is trying to silence bold political expressions. With the much-repeated Modi’s mother analogy is sacrifice the only synonym for a woman or is freedom, sexuality, and difference a part of the glossary?
A Campaign to make Facebook Better?
While discussing the engagement of women’s groups with social media spaces, I think it is worth mentioning the erroneous steps taken by some groups. When net neutrality, zero-rating and Internet.org were active discussions in the Indian mainstream, a few Kerala women started a campaign to change FB policies. It was in response to the typical VaWG (Violence against Women and Girls) attack on Preetha G.P. following her comment on a politician’s remark, and also her expression of political differences with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam right after his demise. The hate page that had appeared against Preeta G.P. had shown moral anxieties of the right-wing from the last year starting with Kiss of Love protest photos. Apart from the moral attack on Preetha G.P., the page had targeted many ‘Kiss of Love’ volunteers and 5 of them were suspended from Facebook due to mass reporting as fake profile and were asked for ID verification. But the so-called “For a Better FB” campaign was not at all addressing the right-wing attack angle. It positioned itself more like a non-inclusive consumer movement against Facebook, with some women users holding a common position. But in effect, this campaign followed the pattern of a cadre-based worker’s movement while initiating struggles, by submitting to the demands of Facebook.
In any campaign against a social network, it is imperative to notice the use of other social networks for counter-campaign. We have seen examples like Pink Chaddi campaign where its group disappeared overnight from Facebook. But when “For A Better FB” campaign team countered such creative criticisms, they wrote it off as “it is like the call to go to Pakistan” (This is a common expression now in India as the right-wing political leaders tell people who oppose them, to go to Pakistan).
The in-depth discussions in Malayalam cyberspace on Facebook policies and algorithms raised various concerns about the campaign. Some were pointing that “women-friendly policies” were more a feature request than a bug. There were concerns about internet surveillance and the threat to internet freedom based on initial demands of the campaign. All these were ignored by the so-called campaign core team. Women with different opinions on this campaign were tactically ignored and branded as traitors or voices supporting males since long. Even though I had these issues with the undemocratic ways of this campaign engagement, I thought somehow it had a possibility to evolve. Even though the campaign was not receptive and acknowledging, they silently adapted the term ‘ Violence against Women’ to describe the hate speech and harassment that Preetha G.P. and many supporters had faced online.
A campaign started against a right wing attack on women’s Freedom of Expression now selectively omitted that part and started masquerading themselves as anti-caste activists (as per the official submission by Nameless coalitionviii and many recent articles from campaignersixx). Now this campaign also pays Facebook for sponsored ads for their page and petition reach, and helps Facebook to attain more revenue from people who campaign against their policies. In short a campaign which was supposed to focus on right wing attack on women in FB soon changed its focus first to Facebook policies, completely ignoring the Indian legal system, and has now distorted the whole issue.
Despite distortions and value judgments, this campaign failed in responding when Facebook is playing the Indian poor card. The campaign is advocating that ‘Facebook with Better policy’ is the solution for Indian women’s digital and internet rights which is totally unfair and wrong.
The Internet right of Indian Women
The net neutrality violations and zero rated projects such as internet.org create an unlevel playing field, distort competition and interfere with user choice. Zero-rating also diminishes free speech and speech diversityxi, notions fundamental to a vibrant democracy. Our responsibility is to ensure that people who don’t have access to the Internet, get access to the whole Internet.
When State and the right-wing join hands with social media giants like Facebook and question even the right to privacy of Indian citizens, ensuring this level playing field is extremely important for free speech. Apart from net neutrality violation, Free Basics by Facebook.com is an effort to spy on everything Indian users read, write, search for, shop or buy by gate-keeping through Facebook servers on the handful of sites they providexii. As Shiv Vishwanthan points in an article “democracy needs more than a Facebook”. xiii
As feminist principles of the internetxiv say women’s “internet starts with and works towards empowering more women and queer persons – in all our diversities – to dismantle patriarchy. This includes universal, affordable, unfettered, unconditional, and equal access to the internet. It is an extension, reflection, and continuum of our movements and resistance in other spaces, public and private. There is a need to resist the religious right, along with other extremist forces, and the state, in monopolizing their claim over morality in silencing feminist voices at national and international levels. We must claim the power of the internet to amplify alternative and diverse narratives of women’s lived realities.”
There are ways of providing Internet access in a manner that is open, so that everyone gets access to the whole of the Internet, without discrimination between web services, and without violating net neutrality. While India’s internet access is mushrooming, women need to work on reducing the gender gap, ensuring freedom of expression, and fight back the silencing efforts of Facebook, right-wing moralists, and the state. Also, it is important to note that VaWG threat is not only limited to one social network. Both Facebook and the campaign to make it ‘women friendly’ are sadly going away from the real causes and concerns of Indian women in the open Internet. Needless to say, both are trying to save the right-wing interests one way or the other. What today’s Indian women need is Open Internet, and not a secured, walled garden.