A new era of digital colonization is upon us, as the rapacious race for data fuels surveillance capitalism. The current global data policy orthodoxy, however, seems to valorize unrestricted, cross-border data flows, without any debate on the role of data governance in promoting equitable and gender-just development. What makes this situation even more daunting is the impunity that Big Tech continues to enjoy. Platform companies bend laws across the various jurisdictions they operate in, whether it be for tax avoidance or for clandestine anti-competitive maneuvers that stifle competition. It is only recently that these manipulations have begun to come to light, and oftentimes the penalties that nation-states, especially those in the Global South, can impose do not serve as a sufficient deterrent. Digital companies derive their extraordinary power by creating and controlling networked ecosystems that support essential connections for marketplace and social interactions, reaping advantages of the network effect.

A deep structural shift is underway, with platform companies as the prime movers. The future of work has emerged as a critical public-political issue, with wide-ranging debates and wild guesstimates about the impact of the fourth industrial revolution. For feminists from the Global South, this shifting landscape is much more than about work and its future – it is about the manner in which relations of production and social reproduction are getting restructured globally. We need to think about how the digital, as the material architecture of our societies, can be directed towards transformative ends, and what may be the approach needed in this regard to orient it around bringing economic, social, ecological, and gender justice.

Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) and IT for Change (ITfC) are part of the Just Net Coalition, a global network of civil society actors committed to an open, free, just, and equitable internet. As part of this wider network, we have been collaborating on ‘Rebooting digital justice in a post-Covid world’, an ambitious project working towards a systematic development of digital governance perspectives in key sectors of development, and the formulation of cross-cutting principles for digital and data governance from the standpoint of equity and justice. Under this, we co-anchored the working group on Feminist Digital Justice, a global coalition effort organized around addressing the intersections between emerging developments in digitalization and the domain of feminist frameworks.

A guiding principle of the working group was to build a grounded critique and alternative theory of the network-data paradigm, through a wider cross-movement effort to bring gender justice narratives to the center of economic policy discussion for the 21st century. Through deliberations and dialogue among civil society organizations and a bottom-up process, we mapped priorities for governance and identified key challenges in the design and development of platform, data, and artificial intelligence (AI) architectures from the standpoint of feminist digital justice. Building on the deliberations of the 35-member working group, a statement outlining actions and agendas for ‘Feminist Principles of Digital Justice’ was developed.

As we gear up for the launch of ‘A Feminist Digital Justice Declaration for Generation Equality’ at the 67th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), we recount and reflect in this article, the working group’s two-year journey that led up to this process.

Visualizing Challenges

The relevance and validity of a feminist framework towards contemplating the challenges of digitalization emerged as a starting point, as the working group considered in all seriousness the question: ‘Why should feminists care?’ As Sofía Scasserra from Transnational Institute, Argentina, one of the members of the working group, articulated,“Technology permeates all aspects of our lives, and it is important that feminism has the tools to conquer all the spaces where we are, i.e., cultural, political, economic, and social spaces.”

A second step was identifying challenges at different scales and dimensions within the field. In doing so, the working group had to explore the contours of digitization, what it is all about, and how it works. Jun-E Tan, a policy researcher from Malaysia, explained it with these words: “The main challenge for feminism with regard to digitization is how much we don’t understand about it, including the potential uses and the potential dangers of (digital) tools. Many times, we react to (digitization) either with extreme pessimism or extreme optimism. Of course, in the (feminist) movement, we focus on safeguarding, and we have a more cautious approach, hence there’s a bit more pessimism (vis-à-vis digitization). I do think there’s tremendous power and knowledge in understanding how these technologies work in order to be able to address the specific challenges that digitization brings. To begin with, we need to define what digitization means and understand how it’s different from the analog world. Once we demystify digitization, it will make it easier for feminists to organize and fight back against corporate capture.”

“Working online does not reduce the burden of unpaid care work on women. Furthermore, the ability to actually leave the work behind and take a breather is taken away too. And that flexibility may often result in a lower quality of the job offered or attract a lower pay.”

Another significant aspect that had to be contended with was the context of the pandemic and the ways in which Covid-19 had deepened inequalities in access and exacerbated the gender digital divide. This is what Sohini Bhattacharya from Breakthrough emphasized strongly in her inputs. “For me, the same power dynamics that come into play where marginalized populations are concerned, come in here as well. But the rapid digitization during the last two years because of the pandemic has exacerbated inequities even more and women have faced increased marginalization,” Bhattacharya said.

Various challenges were debated and deliberated as part of the working group meetings. Belén Valencia from the Institute of Ecuadorian Studies and RUDA Feminist Collective talked about the challenge of information asymmetry: “The digital economy has a lot of dimensions, and a lot of information about these issues do not reach our region, especially South America, and that generates inequalities in access to information and technology, and inequalities in access to knowledge of labor rights in relation to digitalization. That is why I think it is very important to have access to such information. Then, we also need to think about how technology can benefit us in order to generate greater access and rights for women and LGBTQI+ people. For example, we need to think about how we can protect our privacy, so that data becomes something more common.”

Belén Valencia, Institute of Ecuadorian Studies and RUDA Feminist Collective

In the pervasive economic restructuring of the digital age, we are witness to a radical reconfiguration of the global labor chain. Advancements in digital technologies are likely to increase automation of all economic activities except those where wages are low enough to make automation uneconomic. Another key challenge for the group was to provide feminist analysis of the impact of unequal labor dynamics in different countries and regions. As Dana from FLAME framed the argument: “We are still experiencing difficulty in understanding the digitalization of the economy. What does that mean in different contexts, for instance, in countries that are dominating the global economy, and in countries that are being exploited by the global economy? Even within one country, what impact has this trend had on different industries, and on different people in the same industry? Although there have been many analyses to discuss all of these issues, we can benefit little from them as feminists, since only a few of them have adopted feminist perspectives.”

A related issue that emerged was not only how women and LGBTQI+ people accessed the digital economy but the conditions of access under which they did so. Bhattacharya observed, “Moving to a platform-based economy means women take a severe beating here. Working online does not reduce the burden of unpaid care work on women. Furthermore, the ability to actually leave the work behind and take a breather is taken away too. And that flexibility may often result in a lower quality of the job offered or attract a lower pay.”

The impact of the digital gender gap in terms of access to technologies was discussed vis-à-vis the profound challenges for the knowledge and education agenda it raised, as Bhattacharya explained: “For girls who manage to complete school and aspire for a higher education or a career, teachers and parents often direct them away from vocations that are traditionally considered more suitable for boys due to strong injunctive norms. They often cannot enter a stream of study related to digital technology. So, then they enter a smaller range of jobs with lower barriers to entry, less stability, and lower wages, continuing a vicious circle of inequality.”

It is only through movement-building that we dismantle the technological and digital inequalities that reinforce women’s subordinate roles in society.

Bhattacharya further highlighted the findings of an OECD report on the digital divide published in 2018, which stated, “At 15 years of age, on average across OECD countries, only 0.5% of girls wish to become ICT professionals, compared to 5% of boys. Twice as many boys as girls expect to become engineers, scientists, or architects. Changing gender-specific expectations about professions is key, including by fostering female role models in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).”

How can we Strengthen the Feminist Digital Justice Agenda?

It is against this backdrop that feminists must dive deeper into the knowledge, advocacy, and movement-building track, towards a feminist development agenda for the digital economy. For two years now, the collective work of the Feminist Digital Justice working group has sought to contribute to this agenda, noting the challenges as well as recognizing the importance of strengthening alliances. Through their deliberations, the working group proposed three tracks of action:

Deepening feminist analysis against the dominant digital paradigm: Since technology is setting the rules of the game and outlining the future, there is a need for a feminist technology and technological feminism. The digital divide has moved beyond access and includes dimensions of participation, usage, motivation, and skills. A feminist analysis on the digital world and digitization ensures that we redefine the relationship between gender, technology, and their multifaceted power dynamics.

Strengthening connections between movements: We need to create bridges into various sectors so that we can create solidarities and work together. There needs to be cross pollination of ideas and coalition-building between efforts in digital justice with social, economic, and environmental justice. It is only through movement-building that we dismantle the technological and digital inequalities that reinforce women’s subordinate roles in society.

Engaging in multiple advocacy actions at different levels: Recognizing that there is no single fix for the challenges that have been outlined, actions must be multi-scalar and multi-pronged. We need a combination of social, policy, and technological approaches that range from high-level legislative measures to recalibrating our literacy and education efforts at the local level.

At CSW67, scheduled to take place from 6-17 March 2023, the focus will be on ‘Innovation and Technological Change, and Education in the Digital Age’ for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. The launch of the Feminist Digital Justice Declaration will be an opportunity to amplify the voices rooting for feminist digital justice. Although a long haul, well-coordinated, cross-movement advocacy strategies for appropriate regulatory frameworks in national and international arenas with regard to 21st century trade and finance are non-negotiable.