This Is Why Women Are Freaking Out About Losing Open Internet Access
If you like being able to access any website you choose and have it load at the same speed as any other site, then guess what? You are a fan of net neutrality, which dictates that internet service should be considered a basic utility (like gas and electricity), and providers should treat all internet traffic and usage the same. In 2015, an FCC regulation put this philosophy into action, making it illegal for internet service providers (ISPs) to treat any website's traffic differently from any other site's (i.e., you can watch porn just as fast as YouTube videos). But now, the Trump administration wants to end net neutrality, arguing that fewer government regulations on ISPs will lead to more money and jobs. On Wednesday, dozens of major websites, from Google and Amazon to Netflix and Spotify, protested to bring awareness to the threat this poses to our internet freedoms.
Dropping net neutrality wouldn't just raise the possibility that users would be unable to access certain sites that their web provider didn't approve of, or that websites would have to pay ISPs extra money to make sure that their pages load quickly. Losing net neutrality would also have major consequences for the millions of women who rely on the internet to run businesses, earn money, produce content and form activist communities. The end of net neutrality could leave these women unable to organize, compete with other businesses, or make their voices heard at all.
Women's Businesses Would Be At A Disadvantage
If web providers are given the ability to pick and choose which sites they want to direct users to, it's likely that women-owned businesses would lose out. Why? Because most women-owned businesses are small. According to a 2012 report by the National Women's Business Council, 89.5 percent of the reported 9,878,397 women-owned businesses in the U.S. have no employee besides the owner. And those small businesses — many of which depend on the internet for their existence — will be jeopardized in a market where businesses are expected to pay extra so that consumers can access their websites quickly.
An internet where all sites load at the same speed allows these women-owned small businesses to remain competitive. A May 2017 letter from a number of female U.S. senators to the chairman of the FCC explained that an "even playing field" is massively important to women-owned businesses on the internet, "as it affords women-owned businesses and startups an even playing field when competing with more established brands and content."
While women have been gaining ground in the business market — a 2014 report showed that 30 percent of all U.S. businesses were now women-owned, a number that grew 68 percent from 2007 — they're still at a disadvantage. TechCrunch's yearly study of women-run startups in found that, in 2017, women-founded venture-backed companies have only made up 17 percent of the total since 2012. Removing their ability to compete equally with major websites and corporations wouldn't help.
Countless women make their livings in online sex work, as cam girls, porn creators, sex toy entrepreneurs, or in other sex-related jobs, and a loss of net neutrality would be devastating for them.
86 percent of sellers on online commerce site Etsy are women, and the loss of net neutrality could pose a huge threat to the livelihoods of those women. "Our sellers depend on a free and open internet to build their businesses and compete with much bigger brands," Etsy's senior director of global policy Althea Erickson told Bustle.
Women are also key players in one of the most major parts of the online business landscape: sex work. Countless women make their livings in online sex work, as cam girls, porn creators, sex toy entrepreneurs, or in other sex-related jobs, and a loss of net neutrality would be devastating for them. Not only would it hurt them as small business owners who wouldn't be able to compete with big companies that could afford faster loaders speeds, but their work could also be restricted, as internet companies could deny access to content they deemed "inappropriate" or charge an extra fee for it. (Pornhub was one of the many businesses that joined the protests on Wednesday.)
And the value of net neutrality for sex workers isn't only measured in dollars and cents — the internet allows many sex workers to stay safer, as websites give them the tools to better screen out dangerous clients, stay anonymous, or avoid other potential harm.
Women's Health Information Could Be Censored
The activist group Fight For The Future coordinated Wednesday's internet-wide net neutrality protest, and the impacts of censorship and slowed speeds were high on their agenda of concerns. "There’s absolutely nothing to stop ISPs from censoring sites that they don’t like," co-founder Evan Greer told Fast Company, "from slowing down or throttling content from sites unless they pay up, or from charging users extra fees or requiring them to upgrade their internet packages if they are going to access the content that they’re used to being able to access for free." And there's one area where limited information could be particularly damaging: women's health.
Pro-choice organization NARAL provides an example of how ISPs with agendas can hurt women's ability to access vital information about their healthcare options. As they recently wrote on Medium, NARAL experienced the difficulties of censorship in 2007, when Verizon cut off the group's text messaging program for members. The censorship ceased after public outcry — but if net neutrality were reversed, there's no guarantee that that would happen next time. "Without net neutrality, internet providers could control what we see and do online, giving wealthy, conservative anti-choice groups the upper hand," they noted.
Women in desperate need of help could have their options to information restricted by ISPs that push agendas opposed to abortion, birth control, or other women's health issues.
A world where access, power, wealth and political clout gives someone control over the internet accessibility of millions puts women at major risk. Women in desperate need of help could have their options to information restricted by ISPs that push agendas opposed to abortion, birth control, or other women's health issues. And this issue flows both ways — ISPs with agendas supportive of reproductive rights could theoretically censor anti-abortion sites, as well.
Women's Activism Could Be Curbed
How would net neutrality's demise affect female-led political movements? NARAL put it bluntly: "Without net neutrality," they wrote on Medium, "the feminist movement, Black liberation movements and movements to protect our environment would have to pass through Big Telecom gatekeeping before they could reach audiences with their messages and calls-to-action."
A huge part of democratic work by women around the world, the Women's Institute For Freedom Of The Press told Bustle, is done online. "Women," they noted, "need to communicate directly with others without being blocked or slowed down in media dialogue, especially when they don’t have the finances to gain access to such high profile networks." Unsurprisingly, the financial power players who might influence corporate decisions about ISP coverage are overwhelmingly male and white — and without net neutrality, they can choose to de-prioritize the voices of women or other marginalized people.
If an ISP decided that online activism by a feminist group was incompatible with its commercial ideals or politics, there would be nothing to stop it from simply restricting access or blocking it altogether.
The Women's March was largely coordinated online, demonstrating both the power of female organization and its potential vulnerability to online censorship across platforms. If an ISP decided that online activism by a feminist group was incompatible with its commercial ideals or politics, there would be nothing to stop it from simply restricting access or blocking it altogether. And even if there isn't direct censorship, most grassroots activist groups wouldn't have the money to pay for their sites to load quickly.
Female activism online works on the smaller scale, too. As non-profit organization the Free Press Action Fund pointed out, blogs, Twitter and social media have been mediums for women to push against patriarchal narratives from the ground up. Grass-roots feminist storytelling by activists has had a huge impact in our society in recent years; for example, after the publication of a Washington Post column claiming that sexual assault survivors receive "privilege" and "coveted status" on college campuses, feminist activists made the hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege go viral — which led to increased mainstream media coverage of the experiences of survivors.
This kind of narrative ripples across social media on a regular basis, from debates about intersectional feminism to challenges to mainstream examples of sexism and misogyny. Without net neutrality, both organizations and individual female voices risk being censored or impeded in their attempts to create political change.
Women's Voices Could Be Ignored
The loss of net neutrality wouldn't just hurt women trying to make a living, organize, or learn about their health online — it would also likely impact how much space women were given online to talk about or do anything at all. "Without net neutrality," the Women's Media Center has commented in an open letter, "women's and girls' voices online will be threatened. Already, major media’s structural inequality continually leaves women and girls out.... Especially affected by these structural inequalities are women & girls of color, trans women, queer women, and indigenous women (to name a few), who are regularly attacked and objectified by major media while simultaneously being erased from our screens and speakers."
Online representation, from producing content to being visible to being part of organizations that support different identities, is important, and net neutrality aims to save us from going back to a time when none of that was possible.
When the rules protecting net neutrality were introduced back in 2015, Malkia Cyril, the founder of the Center for Media Justice, claimed it as a victory for protecting the internet from "becoming like television: white, middle-class and exclusive." Online representation, from producing content to being visible to being part of organizations that support different identities, is important, and net neutrality aims to save us from going back to a time when none of that was possible. "Currently," the Women's Institute For Freedom Of The Press told us, "the gigantic corporations reach about 90 percent of the population and have undue power over determining what or if information gets disseminated, and the slant of the knowledge itself. Corporate media stereotypes, distorts and omits crucial issues women face — such as violence against women."
Though the current net neutrality debate is only in the US, this isn't an issue that only turns up in American culture, either. When India was debating net neutrality in 2015, Bishakha Datta explained the philosophy's feminist value to Indian women's website The Ladies Finger: “Ten or 15 years ago, only activists were speaking about feminist issues in the public domain — today, individual women are participating in this conversation, without being represented by non-profits or NGOs. [The Internet] has, to some extent, broken the divide between who’s acceptable and who’s not."
What Can We Do?
Though the official online protest against repealing net neutrality was on July 12, an official ruling has yet to be made by the FCC, and you still have time to make your voice heard. You can call your representatives to voice your support for net neutrality, and also let both your own internet service provider and the FCC know how you feel. It's also worthwhile to explain the issue to your friends, and let them know how it will impact their lives. Many people don't know what net neutrality is, or think that it only impacts people who work in technology. They don't know that losing it could completely reshape not just how they shop, play games or watch videos, but the kind of information they're allowed to learn and the ways they communicate.
Online communities of women and other oppressed people are already constantly endangered as is, with threats ranging from doxxing attacks and targeted online abuse to simply being ignored by the larger online media. The removal of net neutrality would end one of their most crucial protections — and open the door for new threats, not to mention loss of income and the ability to freely communicate with each other. All of this is to say, not only would losing net neutrality make it harder to be a woman on the internet in general, it would also make it more difficult to just be a woman trying to live her life in 2017.