Q&A: Charlotte Webb of Feminist Internet

From shopping and entertainment to writing and gaming, being online is now a central tenet in many modern lives.

The United Nations has made a commitment to make internet access available to people in the least developed countries by 2020. There has also been an unprecedented increase in the number of people using cell phones and internet technologies (WHO). Increasingly, there will be fewer and fewer people who do not have access to the internet.

But what started as a way of connecting people and expanding the possibilities of communication can now also be a hotbed for abuse, harassment, and extremism.

Dr Charlotte Webb is an artist and designer who says that tech companies, which are led predominantly by men, have made it easy to act hatefully online. This, in turn, has contributed to an internet that reinforces inequalities. In response, Webb has started a new movement to try and make the internet more equal.

In 2017, Webb founded Feminist Internet — a movement and academic research project aiming at making the internet a more equal and less misogynistic place. She aims to do his by conducting research, creating new technologies and promoting solutions to negative online spaces.

In just a year, Feminist Internet has received positive engagement and attention around the world. The organization has given talks and workshops in London, Cannes, Barcelona and Madrid. Last December, it also sold out a “digital clinic” hosted at central London’s Somerset House.

But how does the group’s plan work in practise? And, if the internet is just a reflection of society, how does it plan to fix it without jeopardizing net-neutrality and free speech?

WikiTribune spoke to Charlotte Webb at an event hosted by University of the Arts London on June 27.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

WikiTribune: What does the internet look like to you and what has made you believe the Feminist Internet is necessary? 

Charlotte Webb: The paradox of the internet is that it holds so much potential for liberation, positive social change, and the democratization of various processes, but at the same time also has the potential to reinforce structural societal inequalities, the structures of power, the structures of governments.

When you look at the internet it mirrors some of the problems that are in society … although the internet does accelerate certain issues. Like, for example, with online abuse and harassment, people often say that it’s easier for trolls to do what they do on the internet because there’s a layer of anonymity to do it from behind. But of course, the reasons why people abuse each other are not technological, they’re social.

It’s that kind of feedback loop between societal problems and internet as a space that reflects them back and sometimes amplifies them. Some of the things that we’ve identified as being problematic is the fact that there’s such a predominance of women or people from LGBTQ+ communities, people of color that experience online abuse. And a lot of that work is highlighted by Amnesty International Toxic Twitter Campaign.

The culture of Silicon Valley and all of its other instantiations around the tech sector has a kind of masculine toxicity that comes out of the way it evolved. And so as many of the internet’s products, services, platforms are created in that environment, if it doesn’t reflect equality properly it’s going to be the consequences of that which are felt in the technologies and the platforms.

Feminist Internet branding
Feminist Internet aims to increase equality on the internet with research, technology and consultancy. Photo by: Georgina Capdevila, used with permission of Feminist Internet

WikiTribune: When you talk about the internet being unequal, is it just male domination and the reflection of society, or could it be described in another way?

Charlotte Webb: It’s got several dimensions. At the most abstract level, the way that capitalism has subsumed the internet and commodified social media is at the core, because ultimately feminism to me is about equality, so even though we’re playing that out through the lens of gender, actually the bigger thing that you’re fighting up against is power. And power plays out through the patriarchy, but also capitalism.

In the early days of the internet where the ideology was about information sharing and communications …  this is like a conventional narrative. But in the early 2000s when corporate social media took over everything and the monopolies of Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google started to become more and more pernicious and pervasive, we somehow lost the kind of open experimental nature of the internet, which never really existed outside of capitalism, but which became more and more subsumed by it.

WikiTribune: What are some examples of what you’re talking about?

Charlotte Webb: One example of it is let’s say the filter bubble. The increasing homogenization of internet spaces because the business model for them is advertising. So the more and more data is collected the more and more specific the profile of the person, the more and more specific the targeted marketing, the more and more their feed is narrowed and narrowed.

You’ve seen the political consequences of that in the Trump election where they had 5000 data points each on 250 million Americans. (Cambridge Analytica says it has 5000 data points on over 230 million American voters.)

That played a very significant role in the result of the election. So we now have a different set of responsibilities which are about when we think what does it mean to be digitally literate, it’s not only about knowing how to use certain tools, it’s about identifying source bias. With the phenomenon of fake news, looking at the filter bubble, saying to yourself: “Okay I have to actually subscribe to feeds that I don’t like.” Or learning tactics that can help subvert the dominance of corporate algorithms.

WikiTribune: What do people take for granted on the internet that perhaps exemplifies inequality? 

Charlotte Webb: The trade off of free services for data is something which is becoming much more of a mainstream concern. But even when you’re super aware of it, most don’t retract from the platforms, because they’re so dominant and because it’s so helpful to be engaged with them. But if the consequences of opting out are so negative on your life, it’s not really a fair choice.

These micro actions that we’re doing that don’t seem consequential. I’m a hypocrite because I do it all the time, cookies, accept, accept, accept. You know what I mean. And I know what the data’s being used for and I know what I’m complicit in if I don’t resist, but it’s very difficult to just live your life in a kind of reasonably fast paced way if at every point you’re resisting.

WikiTribune: Is it accurate to say that Feminist Internet is not just about making the internet more gender equal, but more fair in many ways?

Charlotte Webb: Absolutely we want gender equality, we want to recognize the intersections of different forms of oppression, race, class, gender, gender identity. But, and it’s really hard to articulate this, but it’s a push back against power more broadly.

It’s about how the internet’s intended for capitalism. That is quite neo-liberal Western positioning, because capitalism plays out in different ways in different cultural contexts, but I still think yeah, Feminist Internet is there to push back against power structures however they are expressed in relation to the internet and to promote internet equality.

The way I define internet equalities is as having equal rights to freedom of expression, equal rights to data protection, to privacy, and to access. And then there’s another piece about having the monopolies, the people in power recognize their responsibility embed equality into the technologies that they’re developing. That’s the biggest challenge.

Feminist Internet on Twitter

Setting up for our afternoon workshop! Come on down to @TPGallery From 1-4pm to explore feminist zine-making, & get tips on handling online harassment. @feministlibrary @amnesty and @_GlitchUK 💪🏼⚡️🤳🏽

WikiTribune: So you’ve done the creative, artistic, attention-grabbing projects. What comes next and how would you implement Feminist Internet actively? Would it be affecting the entire internet, or one portion of it? 

Charlotte Webb: I’m envisaging four strands of work. Research and development would underpin everything, then there would be technology incubation, consultancy and public engagement programs. So they would infiltrate the universe in different ways, so tech incubation would be a space where we actually build the technologies, and then people are going to use those technologies so it could then, Feminist Internet could be in peoples homes, it could be on their phones, it could be on their devices, it could be on apps.

Like that Hollabot app that was prototyped in the original studio, I would love for that to be a real app where people anywhere in the world can fight back against online abuse.

From the consultancy side that would be Feminist Internet going into organizations or companies, hopefully including the big four, the big technology companies and consulting on gender equality and how that can be built into not only organizational culture, but also into the development of the technologies. And I actually think that there is an appetite and I can imagine it almost like a Feminist Internet kind of benchmarking system. Like a rating, “How Feminist Internet really are you?”

WikiTribune: So, like businesses have data protection teams, would corporations have a Feminist Internet team? 

Charlotte Webb: Feminist Internet would go into Google and discuss with Google how gender equality could be improved in their organization at various different levels. So whether that’s organizational culture, whether it’s in the developers bit, whether it’s in the MoonShot Factory, wherever it is. But ideally you want Feminist Internet principles to be built into the design processes of companies. And into their recruitment processes, you know the way they treat their workers and things like that. The values can play out in lots of different contexts.

So it’s a really, really interesting question, where is Feminist Internet, and a lot of the places I see it are actually real world places.

It’s very abstract to say it, but I think of Feminist Internet as kind of new internet protocol. It’s a way of thinking about the internet as this sort of alternative political imaginary, and that … Take the Californian ideology, where does the Californian Ideology really exist, I mean it’s an ideology so it kind of plays out in all different places.

It came from Silicon Valley, but its consequences are felt in very abstract ways and in a way that’s what you want Feminist Internet to do as well, you want it to infiltrate from a kind of cultural bottom up perspective.

WikiTribune: There will be some people who disagree with the ethos of Feminist Internet, and will want the internet to stay as it is. What about those people?

Charlotte Webb: There’s always going to be people for whom change is harder to accept, or that aren’t going to be motivated by the ethics that you’re motivated by, and that is the hardest challenge. I think you want to strike a balance between tokenistic sense of corporate social responsibility where people’ll hire us to tick a gender equality box and then actually changing people’s mindsets, which is a much longer term process.

You can make a lot of arguments about why it’s better to have women in the workplace than men, and you can make that argument on an economic basis — because it’s more productive, going to have a higher turnover, better quality of work if you have them, but whilst that argument is correct and relevant I prefer not only to use that, but also to try to keep communicating the fact that it’s not only because it’s more productive to have women, that women should be there, it’s because it would be more equal.

A photo of Charlotte Webb, the founder of Feminist Internet
Charlotte Webb, the founder of Feminist Internet. Photo by: Internet Age Media, used with permission

People should be given equal opportunities to take senior positions in technology companies, for the benefit of society, not only for the profit motive.

WikiTribune: Are there risks that the Feminist Internet be a form of censorship or oppose net neutrality in any way? 

Charlotte Webb: To me net neutrality is about circumventing monopolies over the telecommunication pipeline, like literally the cables, and having an equality of access. Which is something I think Feminist Internet would support.

In advocating for any cause there’s a risk that you can alienate, create some kind of other, I think as long as we remain open and discursive and not militant and inclusive of a lot of very … As long as we try to integrate a lot of voices into what we’re doing, I think we’re at less risk of closing down net neutrality.

WikiTribune: How would you relax those concerns about censorship and net neutrality around Feminist Internet?

Charlotte Webb: When we did the digital clinic at Somerset House one of the presentations was about that kind of tension between free speech and censorship, which I think is a really, really core debate, I’m glad that you raised that.

Because obviously on the one hand one wants to protect the right to free speech, that’s a really fundamental human right, but we’re really against online abuse, and I think the question is around whose responsibility we want it to be to moderate what happens on the internet, so at the moment there’s a lot of … If you look at the Facebook moderator guidelines, they’re bizarre. And they come with all sorts of weird biases and problematic rules.

They’ll give examples of certain things that should be taken down and other things that should be left on, and when you look at what they decide should be taken down and what should be left on it’s very skewed. You know, there’ll be some guidelines on social media platforms that allow a beheading to stay on, but a picture of a nipple not.

WikiTribune: If WikiTribune came to Feminist Internet in a year’s time and said, “We want to make WikiTribune identify with Feminist Internet,” how would we make it comply with Feminist Internet? 

Charlotte Webb: That’s a great question. One of the things that I’m interested in is the issue of labor and workers rights, equal pay and I think the journalism sector is notoriously unfair in terms of compensating people for their labor.

What I’d be really interested in discussing with an organization like WikiTribune would be how do labor rights play out? How are they protected? What’s the gender balance in the journalism sector, how are you guys engaging with that? Is there anything that we could do to fight for that in your corner more?

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