Day 7 | 1 Dec - World AIDS Day | Sex & the internet - Defend our right to information!

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

There are more than 30 million people today who are living with HIV. Across the world, women make up for half of all infections, and the numbers have been rising in the past 10 years. Young people are also increasingly at risk, accounting for 40% of all new adult infections in 2009.

Gender norms and stigma acts as key factors behind the growth of this pandemic. This includes the idea that men have control over women's lives and bodies, leaving women and girls with less power to negotiate sexual relations, the use of male or female condoms and safer sex practices. The same disparity that underpins violence against women put women and girls more at risk of transmission. Economic inequality also means that women have less resources to access treatment and take preventative measures.

Access to information is key in the fight to end HIV and AIDS. From education to improve opportunities for economic advancement, to accessing critical support and recourse in the face of violence, access to relevant and accurate information plays an important role in efforts to end HIV and AIDS.

Yet, the discourse of shame and morality that surrounds sexuality often means that the information that is available around sexual health and being is often limited, inadequate and biased to the interests and perspectives of those in power. Many countries still shy away from comprehensive sex education in schools that includes a focus on gender equality, respect between partners and frank and non-judgemental discussions about sex and sexuality. Women's sexual and reproductive health are often the sites for censorship and regulation, from the State to communities to the family.

With the increasing availability of access to the internet, it has become an important space for people to access information from multiple sources and perspectives. Its ability for anonymity also enables individuals to seek and exchange information and opinions about sex and sexuality privately with less fear of  judgement.

The internet however, is also not invincible from the power structures that affect every other aspect of life. More and more countries around the world are making moves to regulate and censor the types of information  available and practices that can be done online. This includes measures by governments, institutions such as the media and religious bodies as well as multinationals like Google and Yahoo! that control many of the platforms that we rely on in our online activities. Often, control and regulation of information and expression around sex and sexuality is the first significant step to this process [http://erotics.apc.org].

Where do you start your search for information? Who do you rely on as your main gatekeeper to the abundance and diversity of information and perspectives available? How are they regulating what you can or cannot access online?

Defend your right to information! Find out, explore and question how your internet gatekeepers restrict or direct the information you access. Make it visible and demand for accountability. Take back the tech!

 

1. Search

  • Go to your usual search engine.
  • Make a search on a list of words and queries around sex and sexuality. For example, "vaginal discharge", "safe abortion", "lesbian sites", "clitoral pleasure", "anus" etc.
  • How does your search engine behave?
  • Google for example, has a list of words that are automatically excluded from their "instant-search" function. The "instant search" function automatically displays a list of suggestions as you type out your query. But when it comes to many terms related to sex or sexuality, it remains blank, the helpful automatic suggestion does not appear. Main 2006, a hacker magazine, began compiling a list of these (English) "blacklisted" words with the help of their readers [http://www.2600.com/googleblacklist/]. They include "bisexual", "clitoris," "dominatrix," "fellatio," "Kama Sutra", "semen ", " sex, ", " transsexual", " vagina "... and the list goes on.

2. Compare

  • Go to another search engine and make a similar search.
  • Move away from the popular search engines and try out  some of the lesser known ones like blekko, yandex, collecta, chacha  or find one that is available in your country.
  • What are the top 3 results that you get? How do they differ between each search engine?
  • Are there keywords that returned few or no results, or results that completely did not match what you were looking for?
  • Are there any sites from the first page of the search results that you cannot access?
  • If you cannot access a page, it could mean that your government or internet service provider (ISP) has decided to block it. Depending on the policy in place, you will either be directed to a page that tells you explicitly that it is being blocked, or you could be taken to a page that looks like an error connecting to the server message.

3. Question & assess

  • What do the differences between search results tell you about how the company behind the search engines approach gender norms and sexuality? For example, do they equate sex with harm? Do they view themselves as "protectors" of women and children? Do they respect the users' right to information, and ability to make decisions about what they want or do not want to access?
  • Similarly, what do the blocked pages tell you about your government or ISP's approach?
  • How do you think this affects your right to access the information that you need?
  • How does it affect the exercise of your sexual right?

4. Make the invisible visible!

  • Make a printscreen of your search results or the blocked page
  • Upload it on this site:
    • Create an account
    • Log in
    • Go to: http://www.takebackthetech.net/node/add/image
    • Under "gallery", select "printscreen"
    • Under "daily action reference, select today's daily action
    • Upload your printscreen
    • Under description, put in the date and your location (country). Write down your assessment or thoughts around your search experience, and how you think it affects your right to information and the exercise of your sexual rights.
  • Or leave it as a comment on this page.
  • If you use Twitter, share it on Twitpic

5. Demand accountability

  • Companies that run search engines often have Twitter accounts, email addresses and other channels to receive users' feedback. Many governments and ISPs also have similar communication channels. Search for it under "Contact", "About" or "Feedback". For example, Google's Twitter account that looks at public policy is @googlepubpolicy, and you can follow and converse with ChaCha on their @ChaCha Twitter account.
  • Send them a Tweet or email and ask them for the reasons behind their approach. Share your email by copying ideas@takebackthetech.net or it as a comment on this page, or put the #takebackthetech hashtag on your tweet.

Take part in defining your public information space! Explore, assess and question. Monitor your gatekeepers and demand for transparency and accountability in how decisions are made around content related to sexuality. Information and knowledge are key to empowerment and our ability to make decisions about our lives and bodies. Defend our right to freedom of information!