FTN Roadshow Blog Series* – Governance: geek feminist critiques of the digital liberties movement

by sky croeser

Over the last two decades, we have seen the emergence of a movement attempting to retain (or regain) democratic control of digital communications technologies. I’ve previously written about the activism emerging around this, framing it as a digital liberties movement (here and here), and Hector Postigo’s work on the digital rights movement offers another way of understanding it.


While the digital liberties movement is engaged in an important struggle, its politics create constraints in terms of the kinds of critiques – and solutions – it offers. It’s always tricky discussing the politics of social movements (which are always heterogeneous and fluid), but broadly speaking, the politics of the movement mostly fits within a liberal democratic framework. There are frequently challenges to aspects of the existing political systems activists are working within, but usually these go back to liberal ideals. So, for example, activists challenge state surveillance by appealing to concepts like freedom of association and freedom of speech, rather than by challenging the right of the state to exist. There’s also a strong streak of libertarianism in the movement, in the American sense of a politics which argues for greatly-restricted state power but few restrictions on the power of the market.


This translates into campaigns with a strong focus on individual freedom from government oppression, particularly with regards to protections for ‘free speech’ and limits on government surveillance; tactics that aim at reform, rather than deeper structural change; and appeals to an idealised free market (so, for example, complaints about the ways in which intellectual property law creates monopolies, and claims that more nimble entrepreneurship could balance the power of large corporations).


Many geek feminists work within, or began by working within, this movement: women have been key to the framing, campaigning, and specific projects within digital liberties activism. For example, women (including those who identify as feminists) have had an active presence in free and open source software communities, and in campaigns against online censorship and surveillance. However, many women who were initially involved in the movement have raised important criticisms of it, while others have never found the movement to represent their experiences of online technologies.


Obviously, there is no single political approach in geek feminist politics. There are many different, diverse, geek feminist communities – here I’m talking mostly about North American and Australian geek feminists, and what I say isn’t true for everyone who’d identify in that way. However, again, (very generally speaking) geek feminism often reproduces the focus on liberal ideals, in part because this is the politics which is most visible and available. As Alex Bayley says in a 2014 talk on the history of the Geek Feminist wiki (an important resource for the growth of the geek feminist movement, but not the only site for it), when she first began the wiki she had no education in feminism, gender studies, or related areas, and so the wiki was partly a space to host her own self education. This isn’t unusual, with many women in the geek feminist movement coming from technical backgrounds in which the only ‘activist’ politics present might be those around free software. However, resources like the Geek Feminist wiki, spaces like AdaCamp, and discussions around feminism on Twitter and in other places, is helping to establish a specific (but fluid and heterogenous) politics.
One of the key features here is an interest in intersectionality, an understanding of gendered oppression as intersecting with other forms of oppression. While this concept was initially developed specifically in the context of Black Feminism, by Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and others, it’s much more broadly (and sometimes shallowly), understood in the context of geek feminism today. This is leading to important critiques of the digital liberties movement’s work. For example, ‘free speech’ is both central to the politics of many digital liberties organisations, and a key feature of the rhetoric of many of those harassing women online or in other geek spaces. In the latter case, free speech is usually defined in an expansive way, in which any form of moderation of a space is positioned as ‘censorship’: this can be seen as partly the result of implementing the values of liberal democracy in spaces beyond the state (seeing governance of a conference or online community as mirroring governance of the state).
A blog post by Jem Yoshioka summarises the geek feminist critique of free speech discourse well:

The fervent devotion to free speech over everything else ends up alienating me (and many others, I’m sure). Yes, I believe in the vital importance of freedom of the press and the freedom from being censored, prosecuted or incarcerated by governments based on the expression of thoughts. But I also believe that harmful and dangerous abusive behaviour by individuals and hate groups needs to be identified and actively stamped out. It needs to be the responsibility of us all, not just the people who find themselves targeted. This is the responsibility that we take on as members of a community.

This not only critiques the idea that ‘free speech’ should be prioritised over all other values, but also signals a shift towards a more communitarian approach to governance. The appeal here is not to a top down mechanism, but rather to ‘us’: members of the communities themselves. It also represents an important shift away from individualistic liberal framings of atomised individuals, and towards an understanding of communities as shaped by structural inequalities which must be addressed through solidarity and mutual aid.
Geek feminism is also beginning to raise important critiques of capitalism, in opposition to the digital liberties’ tendency to valorise images of more flexible and technologically-enlightened capital. This is, of course, varied: faith in the market as the primary means of resource distribution is not absent from geek feminist communities. However, at the same time, there’s a growing understanding of the ways in which capitalism is inherently linked to structural oppression. This can be seen particularly in the responses to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, Lean In, which have begun a broader conversation about the limitations of ‘success’ within a capitalist system.
Finally, whereas the digital liberties movement tends to frame government surveillance as a concern, geek feminists are increasingly arguing that for many women, trans people, queer people, and people of colour, the key threats don’t come from their government, or don’t only come from their government. For example, trans women, and particularly trans women of colour, are at threat of state violence, but they’ve also suffered from sustained harassment online and offline for years from trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Understanding ‘surveillance’ as enacted not just by the state but also by other citizens, and often even by peers (including other activists), radically changes the kinds of resistance we might envisage.
These challenges from geek feminists are broadening the way we think about the politics of digital technologies, and encouraging a more nuanced understanding of how we can struggle for more democratic control of vital technology. They’re not the only source of such challenges, and geek feminism itself is drawing on many other stands of activism, including trans activism and anticolonial analysis. Twitter’s recent policy changes around harassment are one sign of the impact of this work – hopefully there will be others, including more radical changes to communication technologies. I’m really looking forward to exploring this in more detail as I build on the work in Global Justice and the Politics of Information and start writing more about marginalised perspectives on Internet governance and online technologies.


For more on my work, check out my website or follow me on Twitter.


*FemTechNet Roadshow Blog Series – Over the past couple of months, about a dozen FemTechNet participants have presented work based on our research and teaching related to FemTechNet in a two-part FemTechNet Keywords Workshop at the CUNY Feminist Pedagogies Conference in April 2015, and at the Union for Democratic Communications Conference at the University of Toronto in May 2015. Since these gatherings brought together such divergent modes of FemTechNet engagement, we thought we’d collect and share this new work over the last two weeks of May, leading up to the deadline for our 2015 FTN Summer Workshop. For more information on this series, contact T.L. Cowan