Technology’s Biased Blueprints
Words by Judy Taing, Article 19
“Alexa, is technology gender neutral?”
“Siri, how does gender manifest online?”
From its inception, the Internet has been shaping power relations. A large part of this capacity comes from how discourse is created and evolves online, but also in how the online space has been built. Deeply ingrained in its very structure are long-standing gender constructs that determine who has access to its vast potential, and who does not.
We cannot understand the structural biases that exist online without taking a cold hard look at the creators of the online world – the tech CEOs, venture capitalists, coders, engineers, developers, designers, policymakers and so forth. The hyper masculine, misogynistic nature of Silicon Valley (and other Silicon-esque locales) is no secret. All that needs to be said is: booth babes. In an interview with The Guardian, Emily Chang, author of the book Brotopia, describes Silicon Valley as:
“… a modern utopia where anyone can change the world or make their own rules, if they are a man. But if you are a woman it is incomparably harder. And that shows in the numbers. Women-led companies get just 2% of venture capital funding.”
The lack of diversity in tech is more than an employment or opportunity issue, it determines the type of Internet that everyone uses across the world. What ostensibly happens is that tech and the internet are built in the image of their creators, largely through the lens of Western heteronormative white cisgender men. As a New York Times article so rightly puts it, “Facial Recognition Is Accurate, if You’re a White Guy” and lays bare research that found error rates in facial recognition technology at 21-35% for darker-skinned women, compared to error rates under 1% for light-skinned males, which has serious implications when facial recognition technology is used as a digital security tool.
Want to listen to a song? Need to change the temperature of the room? No worries, machines are largely available to become our personal assistants. Simply ask the ever-so diligent and always available Siri or Alexa. In her article, The Real Reason Voice Assistants Are Female (and Why it Matters), Chandra Steele points out how this feeds into structured inequality:
“…one might think that using an emotionless AI as a personal assistant would erase concerns about outdated gender stereotypes. But companies have repeatedly launched these products with female voices and, in some cases, names. But when we can only see a woman, even an artificial one, in that position, we enforce a harmful culture.”
Combine these features with the ubiquity of the Internet, we then find ourselves with the frightening reality that through tech, society can become more discriminatory.
How do we create the space that we want?
The only response to homogeneity in tech is to infuse it with diversity, to get the feminist Internet we want. While the end goal is clear, the process of how to get there is anything but. Despite the overwhelming challenges, individuals and organizations have been working tirelessly to dismantle patriarchy in and through technology.
Many organizations have been long working towards gender equality online, creating response mechanisms for journalists who are confronted with harassment and trolling, to creating campaigns to reclaim technology to combat violence against women. Artists are also subverting stereotypes and modes of oppression – such as the sexualization of the female body – to curate different types of personas online, create agency and challenge these insidous norms, as can be seen by Shawne Michealaine Holloway in b4bedwithURLBAE.
At ARTICLE 19, our Iran Programme has been working with Grindr – the world’s largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people – to adapt their app to mitigate threats towards its users, such as through password protections and allowing users to conceal recognizable logos when confronted by law enforcement. ARTICLE 19’s research has shown that simply having Grinder or any other LGBT+ application on your device can result in harassment and/or arrest. Contrary to hegemonic top-down processes often seen from Silicon Valley to other parts of the world, Grindr is making the effort to take the lead from local communities and activists on what is needed to ensure their safety whilst using the dating app.
In terms of the architecture of the Internet, which underpins online (and offline) power relations and gender dynamics, ARTICLE 19’s Digital Team has been working alongside partner organizations and domain registration companies to develop a measure for assessing the human rights impacts of Internet registries, since the information held by these companies, and the disclosure of such information, has right-to-privacy implications. Therefore if domain registration companies are collecting personal information and making it publicly accessible, this leads to an enabling environment for a particular type of online attack that is often gender-based, called doxing. Doxing is the publication of private and identifying information about an individual over the Internet, without their consent and with the intention to harm.
Again, technology is not neutral. Actions combatting online gender-based abuse matter – they are emblematic of the type of Internet we want – one that breaks down oppressive power structures and is inclusive, diverse and equal. This will benefit society as a whole, because as it stands the full potential of the Internet has yet to be realized while one hyper-privileged demographic holds the blueprint to how it is structured, used, governed, and lives.