Refusing to be the Price: Bringing Gender to the Center of the Internet Governance Stage

Rosemary Clark is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar“The Third Man Theme Revisited: Foreign Policies of the Internet in a time of Surveillance and Disclosure.” Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.

MARTINS: Oh, Anna, why do we always have to…

CLOSE SHOT – ANNA looking ahead of her. She tears her passport in two. Martins enters from CR and leans on bar in b.g.

 MARTINS: …quarrel?

ANNA: If you want to sell your service, I’m not willing to be the price…

-The Third Man screenplay, Graham Greene (1949)

Anna Schmidt, played by Alida Valli, is one of two credited female roles and the only major female character in Carol Reed’s and Graham Greene’s 1949 film noir, The Third Man. This made the film an especially poignant frame of reference for myself and for fellow feminists contemplating internet governance (IG) at the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar in Vienna, organized under the film-inspired title, “The Third Man Theme Revisited: Foreign Policies of the Internet in a Time of Surveillance and Disclosure.”

The film takes place in post-World War II Vienna and tells the story of Holly Martins, an out-of-work, pulp Western, writer who travels from America to Austria, where his friend, Harry Lime, has promised him employment. Upon arriving in Vienna, however, Martins discovers that Lime was killed after being struck by a car, leaving behind his grieving girlfriend, Anna, along with a cast of suspicious associates, who soon become suspects in Martins’ unofficial investigation into what he believes to be Lime’s murder. Anna is quickly ensnared in the male-dominated web of characters spiraling outward from the center of Lime’s illicit and shadowy life on the Viennese black market. Only, unlike Lime’s coconspirators, Anna is left wholly in the dark, unaware of his exploits, his true whereabouts, and his colleagues’ intentions and involvement in his sudden death. Anna’s blind ignorance leaves her as little more than a pawn surrounded and manipulated by men who play powerful roles in official and unofficial careers, spaces, and marketplaces. Her apartment becomes a crime scene; the international police confiscates her fake Austrian passport (which Lime forged for her); her legal status hangs in the balance as she is threatened with deportation; and her wellbeing becomes a bargaining chip between Martins, who claims to love her, and the international police, who are aware of only her striking beauty and counterfeit papers. In other words, following Lime’s death, which we ultimately discover was not murder but a staged disappearance, this network of dubious men, largely unknown to Anna, strip whatever agency she once possessed and appropriate her citizenship and personhood as tools for their own purposes. Not once do these men, even those who care for her, stop to ask Anna what she wants or how she views the complexities surrounding Lime’s disappearance, despite the fact that she played a key role in his life. Instead, they each assume that their vision of how to handle Anna and her involvement in the case is best; they unconsciously universalize their perspective, and assume without a thought that they can speak for her. Nowhere is this practice of the men’s privilege over Anna more clearly demonstrated than toward the end of the film, when, unbeknownst to her, Martins agrees to help the international police find Lime on the condition that they return Anna’s passport and release her. Anna, sitting on a train that would bring her to freedom, spies Martins near the platform, realizes that he must have struck a deal with the police, and confronts him, never having wanted to aid in Lime’s capture. It is here that Anna begins to reclaim control. “If you want to sell your service, I’m not willing to be the price,” she retorts, as she rips her passport in half and the train leaves the station with all of her belongings. She will no longer allow herself to be sacrificed or spoken for so that the men acting as puppeteers looming over her personal life might more easily get what they want.

In the final scene, suspense builds as Anna slowly walks toward Martins, and, effectively, the viewer, who wait for her at the end of a tree-lined road. Every romantic film convention would have Anna finish her walk in Martins’ arms, happy to be relieved of the wicked ways of her former beau. Only, after approximately 40 seconds of silently closing the distance between them, she continues to walk past Martins, to the edge of the frame, off screen, and out of sight. She has torn up her official ties to the state, renounced most of her material possessions, defied our and likely Martins’ conventional understanding of how women behave, and, at last, removed herself from the tangles of Lime’s nefarious web. But what happens now for Anna? Can she ever actually escape the official and unofficial structures of power that have ruled her life up until this point? Is there power for Anna in renouncing structures of control, or is her refusal to play her part within those structures also an abdication of formal agency? Can her defiance be one method of changing the male-dominated system from within, or does her empowerment depend upon the creation of a different system altogether?

A Feminist Revisits The Third Man theme

I indulge in this female-centric synopsis of The Third Man because I see a powerful metaphor in the film and its choice as a unifying theme at this year’s Milton Wolf Seminar for the intersection of internet governance and gender. I believe the questions Anna leaves for viewers to contemplate can also be asked of women’s involvement in internet governance. As my fellow Emerging Scholar and colleague, Lee McGuigan, eloquently demonstrated during the seminar’s concluding session, the film’s questionable yet powerful cast of characters and their wildly diverse walks of life parallel the variety of stakeholders and motivations at play in the complicated world of internet governance. Yet, as we realized in our discussion on possible improvements to the seminar, a whole group of key players is often overlooked by stakeholders at the IG table and by people like us at the seminar, who attempt to turn a critical eye on the table and those sitting at it, and this neglected group just so happens to constitute half the world’s population—women.

Like Anna, women are positioned at the periphery of male-dominated information society networks. Female underrepresentation in science and technology, politics, and government leads to their underrepresentation in both IG groups and discourse. Women are consistently outnumbered by large margins and stifled at IG-related meetings, where panelists and moderators are typically male and, consequently, not attuned to the ways in which the big headline issues of internet governance—access, security, content, traceability, privacy, and representation—intersect with gender.

For current and future female users, the internet is a crucial resource because it offers a space for assembling around and accessing information about women’s rights. However, in many developing nations, women’s access is limited not just by infrastructural weaknesses, but also by cultural norms regarding appropriate behavior for women. The internet can also pose significant dangers for female users. Violence against women has gone digital; abusers can stalk and harass their victims through social media and even post compromising photos or videos of their victims without their consent, raising questions about the permanency and traceability of harmful internet content, as seen in the recent “revenge porn” surge. Female journalists, bloggers, and activists whose writing challenges the status quo of male privilege or demands the expansion of women’s rights often face death and rape threats, mediated through social networking platforms like Twitter. While these issues certainly echo the core questions surrounding internet governance, they are, at the same time, unique to women’s gendered experiences online. As long as women and the topic of gender equality are not adequately represented in IG fora, the very specific concerns born out of the intersection between internet governance and gender are left off the table, out of the discourse, and, consequently, out of policy.

Here, I would like to trace a brief history of how various organizations have integrated the topic of gender equality into the discourse surrounding internet governance. As will soon become clear, no proposed strategy for incorporating gender analyses into discussion frameworks or for increasing women’s participation has been completely successful. Nonetheless, stakeholders and organizers can learn from past efforts, if only to ensure that women’s voices will not be the price paid for streamlining approaches to internet governance moving forward.

Tracing a Gendered History of Internet Governance

The recorded history of the struggle for gender equality at various internet governance fora, much like the representation of women at these meetings, is spotty, scattered, and lacking uniformity.[i] A Google search yields a handful of relevant organizational websites and female bloggers reflecting on their experience of being one of the few women participants to shoulder the responsibility of representing their gender at IG meetings.[ii] Most academic writing on gender and internet governance has not been taken up by scholars focused on internet governance models. Understanding the successes and failures of past efforts, however, is a necessary first step in effectively integrating gender into internet governance discourse. The gendered history that I trace here is likely incomplete and cursory. For me, this represents the very beginning stages of my own gender analysis of internet governance, and I look forward to suggestions that might fill the gaps in my understanding.[iii] Regardless, what follows is hopefully a helpful preliminary etching of the trajectory of feminist activism in the playing field of internet governance.

Gender intersected with internet governance for the first time on the international stage at the United Nations’ 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Over the course of the 11-day conference, women’s rights and media activists successfully fought for the inclusion of a provision concerning women’s access to ICTs in the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), the conference’s major outcome. The fact that activists had to rally together to evidence the need for a gendered analysis of ICTs exposed a twofold issue: 1) digital media and communication issues were, as they largely remain today, at the margins of feminist agendas around the globe; and 2) ICTs and related policies were, as, again, they often are today, viewed through a gender-blind lens. The activists gathered in Beijing argued that women’s lack of access to ICTs was both a symptom and a cause of gender inequality, especially as contemporary life became increasingly dependent on communication technologies. Their remarkably forward-looking provision, known as “Section J,” called on all governments and media organizations to “increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through media and new technologies of communication.” In 1995, only 3% of online users had ever signed on to the World Wide Web[iv]; yet, Section J prophetically highlighted two issues now central to any internet governance debate: access and decision-making.

In 2000, the UN General Assembly conducted a five-year review of the BPfA (Beijing+5), and identified ICTs as one major new issue that needed to be addressed in relation to gender equality. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), to be convened in two phases in 2003 (Geneva) and 2005 (Tunis), offered an opportunity to create policies concerning gender equality and twenty-first century communication technologies, policies that reaffirmed women’s rights as framed in the BPfA. In July 2002, during the Africa regional WSIS preparatory committee meeting, 12 gender-focused organizations joined forces to form the WSIS Gender Caucu., This multi-stakeholder group comprised of women and men from the private sector, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society was charged with ensuring that gender equality was included in the WSIS process and outcome documents. A second gender-focused working group was created at the first WSIS preparatory meeting one year later in Geneva, when NGOs working in the area of gender and ICTs voiced a need for a separate but parallel committee to better represent non-governmental and civil society organizations in the WSIS process.  The WSIS NGO Gender Strategies Working Group (GSWG) was thus formed as part of the Civil Society Coordinating Group (CSCG). Together with the Gender Caucus, the GSWG worked under nearly impossible deadlines to ensure the mainstreaming of gender issues into the CSCG’s lobbying attempts and formal feedback reports to the official summit. Their advocacy was consensus-driven and included input from organizations and individuals who could not be physically present in Geneva, but could contribute via email listservs and websites.

By the second preparatory meeting in February 2003, this network of gender activists had conducted several outreach campaigns to educate relevant organizations and activists about the WSIS process so that women might more easily access IG discourse. Most significantly, they had created a core document of gendered recommendations entitled, “7 Musts: Priority Issues for Gender Equality in the WSIS Process.” The “7 musts” contextualized the WSIS Preparatory Committees’ recommendations within the gender-focused Beijing Platform for Action and argued for the need to incorporate a consideration for gender equality in the WSIS Declaration of Principles. Importantly, the language used to present the “7 musts” was constructed with non-technical audiences in mind, true to the feminist value of universal access. However, by the third and final Preparatory Committee Meeting, the Gender Caucus and the GSWG found that their demands had fallen on deaf ears. The draft of the Declaration of Principles excluded the topic of gender equality in its consideration of ICTS. In July 2003, Canadian representatives had, with apparent success, proposed that a paragraph on gender equality be included in the Declaration; but by the final preparatory meeting in September, the paragraph had disappeared. The conventions structuring the WSIS process failed gender activists working with the CSCG. While the WSIS claims to be a multi-stakeholder forum, it, like many such fora, privileges governments and corporations (which are dominated by men) over civil society representatives.

The Gender Caucus and GSWG spent months on the periphery reacting to drafted principles from the more central government and corporate interests with little opportunity for proactive efforts. Consequently, their priorities were viewed as tangential and cast aside. Stifled and frustrated by the WSIS process, GSWG members chose to resort to traditional feminist protest tactics and disrupt the official space of the summit. GSWG members entered one of the final negotiating sessions wearing black t-shirts, on the front of which was printed, “Draft WSIS Declaration has a missing paragraph,” and, on the back, surprised WSIS delegates found missing paragraph 11a:

A focus on the gender dimensions of ICTs is essential not only for preventing an adverse impact of the digital revolution on gender equality or the perpetuation of existing inequalities and discrimination, but also for enhancing women’s equitable access to the benefits of ICTs and to ensure that they can become a central tool for the empowerment of women and the promotion of gender equality. Policies, programmes, and projects need to ensure that gender differences and inequality in the access to and use of ICTs are identified and fully addressed so that such technologies actively promote gender equality and ensure that gender-based disadvantages are not created or perpetuated.

t-shirt2 (1)

A paragraph on gender equality was eventually adopted into the WSIS Declaration, but, unfortunately, with weaker language than that used in the Canadian proposal. The adopted paragraph 12, one of three mentions of gender or women in the document’s 67 principles, states:

We affirm that development of ICTs provides enormous opportunities for women, who should be an integral part of, and key actors, in the Information Society. We are committed to ensuring that the Information Society enables women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis on equality in all spheres of society and in all decision-making processes. To this end, we should mainstream a gender equality perspective and use ICTs as a tool to that end.

Following the first phase of WSIS, gender issues entered the discourse and key outcome documents only in passing, often in long lists punctuated with commas lumping various types of cultural diversity together into a single sentence. The Tunis Agenda, which was the final outcome of the second WSIS phase, includes the words “gender” and “women” three times in its 122 points, and only in subsections, never in the main body. The WSIS process and its outcomes failed to fully integrate gender equality as a crosscutting theme central to the governance of a just information society and, as a result, failed to expand the BPfA in light of ICT advancements.

Moving Forward: Best Practices?

Since the second phase of WSIS ended in Tunis in 2005, international considerations of gender and internet governance have largely played out at annual meetings of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), born out of the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance in 2006. It is unsurprising, given the underrepresentation of gender in the WSIS outcome documents, that women have not been well represented at these meetings. The Gender Dynamic Coalition has repeatedly criticized the gender imbalance in participants, speakers, and topics. In 2011, the Women’s Networking Support Programme of the Association for Progressive Communication (APC WNSP), a key player in Bejing, developed a “gender report card” in time for the sixth annual IGF meeting in Nairobi. The report card, which APC makes available for all IGF participants to complete online, asks participants to keep track of how many speakers at a given session are women, the stakeholder group(s) woman speakers represent, the extent to which a session incorporates a gendered analysis, and the approximate number of women in attendance at the session. Following the 2012 IGF meeting, APC found that, according to the gender report card data, more than half of the 89 sessions failed to mention gender at all and was the main theme in only 4 sessions. Internet Governance for Development (IG4D) sessions, where women made up the majority of participants, were more likely to mention gender.  This lead the APC to conclude that women’s attendance correlates with increased focus on gender. Diplo’s project on the language of internet diplomacy demonstrates that the gender balance is becoming more equitable at IGF, as far as women’s physical attendance and verbal participation is concerned. Taken together with APC’s conclusions, this paints a sunnier picture for the future of women’s representation and internet governance; but questions remain about how to move forward. Given the history of women’s involvement in IG, what are some best practices for crafting a just model of internet governance that ensures gender equality?

The foremost issue is women’s participation. IGF and similar organizations should strive to include greater numbers of women at their meetings. It is important to note, however, that gender should not be conflated with women. The presence of women in an IGF session may increase the odds that gender equality will be addressed; many female participants will likely be members of government and corporate core-stakeholder groups. Addressing gender equality requires more than just female participation; it requires participation by civic society representatives actively working to address gender inequality and ICTs. While the WSIS process failed representatives working toward gender equality, the network of activists formed by the Gender Caucus and GSWG did remarkable work in sheding light on the gender-IG problem and empowering women through educational outreach efforts focused on the complicated field of internet governance. Further, while the presence of women and of gender equality activists is critical, they must also participate on panels, as session leaders, and as moderators. This, of course, is part of a larger problem concerning civil society’s role in internet governance fora.

Following participation, the integration of gender as a topic remains problematic. This question was raised during the closing session at the Milton Wolf Seminar—should we have devoted a single panel to gender equality and internet governance? The answer espoused by myself and others was a resounding “no.” As seen in the efforts of the Gender Caucus and GSWG, the IG feminist ideal is one that mainstreams gender as a crosscutting theme rather than ghettoizing gender to a single session where it is addressed and left behind before moving on to the next session. In practice, this first requires overcoming gender-blindness by exposing: 1) the male-dominated nature of the factions competing for attention as IG stakeholders, 2) the social and cultural privilege and power granted to males in all arenas, especially politics and technology, and 3) the tendency to address an abstract citizen-subject rather than addressing the ways in which gender, as one axis of identity intersecting with other social, cultural, and economic categories, affects individuals’ access to and experience with ICTs.

Bringing these three feminist principles, with special emphasis on the latter, into awareness should, ideally, enable the integration of gender into all IG discussions and consideration of gender as important in itself, not lumped together with other types of “diversity” or marginalized groups. As one could imagine, however, this is easier said than done; and, from where I am standing, it seems like it would require an international feminist revolution. Gender mainstreaming also runs the risk of erroneously universalizing women’s experiences from privileged perspectives. Still, mainstreaming gender as a crosscutting theme is a worthwhile ideal, even if seemingly unattainable, as it throws the current gender-blindness and gender biases into sharp relief.

Mainstreaming also requires lifting the restriction of gender to certain areas. As the APC gender report card discovered, discussions of women in IG is typically relegated to IG4D/ICT4D contexts. Margaret Gallagher, in her entry in the 2011 Handbook of Global Media and Communication Policy, points out that this is because ICT4D positions women as a vulnerable group that could benefit from traditionally valued development efforts, such as education and ICT training; this is in contrast to more controversial, progressive frameworks that see women as key players and gender as a central issue to every aspect of IG. Whereas the latter is the road less traveled by, IG4D/ICT4D grants easier entry onto the internet governance stage for gender equality activists because its motivations have more obvious ties to the existing IG discourse. Further, as Heike Jensen wrote in the 2013 edition of Global Information Society Watch, feminists have critiqued IG4D/ICT4D initiatives that run the risk of training girls and women in developing nations for exploitation by global capitalist economies. Meanwhile, lobbying efforts concerning women-friendly infrastructure development have largely failed, as they do not appeal to the more longstanding, gender-blind values embedded in IG discourse. Pushing the limits of the IG-gender conversation could lead to better IG and ICT policies for women and girls. Gender mainstreaming, as Jensen argued, does not mean inserting an awareness of gender into existing hierarchies, but using a feminist platform to transform and combat these hierarchies.

Lastly, I would like to consider best practices for the content of IG-gender discourse. Feminist activists and scholars must continue to demand the collection of gender-disaggregated data, without which we cannot hope to combat the gender-blindness of the existing IG discourse. Following Jensen and with respect for the heroic work that punctuates the gendered history of IG, discourse concerning gender equality and internet governance must also demand normative commitments through reaffirmations of past interventions, such as the BPfA. In order to make progress, we must point to what has already been done and promised, so that we might build upon rather than forget the accomplishments of feminist activists. As with any other IG-related issue, normative commitments must also be paired with concrete action plans, so that discourse might be implemented in policy. Finally, the content of IG-gender discourse needs to be accessible. The Gender Caucus and the GSWG did admirable work in drafting principles that avoided jargon and making assumptions about readers’ technical knowledge. Given that women’s barriers to entering the IG conversation are related to women’s barriers to entering the science and technology fields, feminists working in IG should be mindful of their language and should strive to educate other feminists about IG and its relevance to the struggle for gender equality.

Refusing to be the Price

The small but determined group of feminist media activists who joined forces in Beijing nearly 20 years ago may have been disheartened to find us still grappling with gender and internet governance at the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. Moving forward, we would do well to remember their tenacity, the J Section, the disruptive t-shirt campaign their legacy inspired, and the unjust quickness with which their efforts for gender equality were brushed aside during the WSIS process. Tracing a gendered history of internet governance does more than shed light on good and bad strategies for better inclusivity and representation of women; it also exposes the international community’s tendency to brush gender equality to the side of ICT-related issues, or at best, to confine it to “development” or lump it together with other types of diversity in passing. Like Anna in The Third Man, women and gender equality activists must not acquiesce to having their concerns overlooked in the male-dominated network that constitutes the information society. Women must refuse to be the price paid in exchange for more streamlined internet governance discourse uncomplicated by the exposure of gendered power hierarchies. As the first point of the J Section reminded delegates gathered in Beijing in 1995, “Everywhere, the potential exists for the media to make a far greater contribution to the advancement of women.” Those whose work revolves around internet governance should endeavor to highlight, not eclipse, this potential.


[i] Much of the history outlined here was drawn from Margaret Gallagher’s chapter, “Gender and Communication Policy: Struggling for Space,” in The Handbook of Global Media and Communication Policy, ed. Robin Mansell and Marc Raboy (2011).

[ii] The following organizations’ websites offer great resources for researchers interested in the relationship between gender and internet governance:,,,,,

[iii] My hope is that this blog post will be the first iteration of a much more in-depth look at the intersection of gender and internet governance. Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions and suggestions at

[iv] See for a concise and fascinating look at the history of the internet.


Rosemary Clark is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and a 2013 graduate of Ursinus College, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Media & Communication Studies and English. Her research can be summarized as a twofold feminist approach to media activism. As an undergraduate student of feminist media studies, much of her research revolved around deconstructing mass media representations of women and girls using critical feminist frameworks. As an Annenberg student, her research has turned toward understanding how and why contemporary American feminists use digital space to mobilize direct action against disempowering media representations and to delineate the boundaries of their feminist activist identities. Rosemary’s work pairs traditional and new media studies with feminist and social movement theories and employs a range of methodologies, including textual and content analysis, discourse analysis, network analysis, and ethnography.

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