My name is Chenai Chair, and I don’t know why I find this important, but I’m a Zimbabwean, based in South Africa.
I am a research manager at the World Wide Web Foundation where I focus on gender issues. In October I will be sharing a report on the state of Women’s Rights online in Uganda, Ghana, Indonesia and Colombia. In my Mozilla Fellowship, I assess the adequacy of data protection and privacy from a gender perspective, with a specific focus on AI and automated decision making. I will be releasing this project early November.
My work is always about centering gender issues and trying to understand the intersectional inequalities and advocate for a better world. Even though sometimes it can be frustrating to be saying the same things that got me into the field six years ago.
Building on your research and expertise, how do you imagine a sustainable and just internet, and what does that mean to you?
I consider this a challenge because to be honest I’ve been feeling very tired with the realisation that what seems obvious to me, is not so obvious to everybody else, even in the digital rights space. But when I think about addressing a sustainable internet, then I want to reflect on the small wins that I’ve seen.
I think it’s about an internet that is equitable for everybody, right? It starts with the choice to be on the internet or not. It shouldn’t just be because the digital rights community wants everybody to be connected. We should do the work to ensure that everyone has the capacity and the capability to use the internet in a way that works for them—not for us who have been working on this topic for the last 6, 10 or 20 years.
A sustainable and just internet is one where they reclaim what is currently there. And by they I mean anyone who is a disenfranchised majority or someone who’s often excluded based on their gender, their race, their disability, etc. And if they need to create new spaces, we create them together and take into account what allows them to achieve whatever economic goals they want to achieve, using different models of making income off the internet.
I also draw lessons from what has worked for me on an internet that has not been designed with black women in mind. We have hacked the space in order to find like-minded people and content that reflects us. My new favorite engagement on social media is not to amplify the bad content, but just to screenshot it and then comment around it. That is a very good idea, because I don’t drive traffic to the problematic content. So it’s always quite interesting when I think about how I want to have an internet that has a framework where people can come in and build up what works for them.
It’s also a space where we are fully aware that our existence and realities play out on the internet, but just at a greater scale and magnitude, because we’re all connected. We need to be able to recognize this in the policies we make. Sometimes the policies, regulations, and community guidelines that we put up are based on a particular context and particular society and then applied to completely different regions as best practice.
For example, if everyone is GDPR-compliant, how many organisations are actually compliant with national data protection laws? In the African context, the conversation is what does a responsive data protection law look like cognisant of context? That for me is a space that recognises its global reach and still is responsive to the specific context of regional and national level. It’s a big dream, because we’ve been trying to do that with multinational corporations, and the struggle has been that global organisations respond to different centers of power. But I think some work has been done for purposes of accountability and transparency. At the same time we learn how these spaces bridge the local and the global.
Could you share an example of these lessons?
I’ll give you the case in Zimbabwe. The hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter and the online protests were so powerful in calling out human rights violations in the country. They managed to bring together those in the diaspora and those who are in Zimbabwe around a hashtag—keyboard warriors as they were called. In a sense it allowed for some connections amongst people who identify by nationality but are geographically dispersed. There is now this recognition that you’re able to support a cause, you’re able to do more, you’re able to shift conversations because you’re participating or you’re amplifying a tweet.
So when I think about the internet from a sustainable and just perspective, it’s a space that allows us to evolve with it. We’re able to build an ecosystem for people to operate in different pockets where they can thrive. And we’re able to call out the bad in that space. Trying to create a safe space is really, really important.
Increasingly in the digital rights sector, we talk about intersectionality, such as your work around gender and the internet. How would you recommend we approach intersectionality with climate justice? How might we mitigate harms or otherwise work towards these desirable futures?
I’m going to refer you to a book by Dr. Sylvia Tamale called Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. She uses the example of Afro-Ecofeminism to locate the context when it comes to environmental sustainability. In an African context, it has been located at the community level, where survival is based on continuously feeding the earth that continuously feeds you.
If you look at climate justice from an individual perspective, like in Europe, then you see it as being about a safe environment for yourself and we each have to do our own little parts. Yet when Tamale talks about the environment from the community perspective, she reminds us of how it is filled with stories about how the earth will get back at you if you fail it. She points out that these myths were completely removed during colonization. So people completely miss that when big fig trees in the highlands of Uganda are cut down, they forget that the trees hold the earth and then there are landslides.
When I think about sustainability and the internet, we often think that the earth is there, and we are here. And we don’t think that we actually need to take care of it.
My favorite example of this disconnect in the internet space has been the carbon footprint of our meetings and conferences. There will be a session on sustainability. And of course, people will want to travel all the way to talk about it. But no one thought maybe if we could just have this whole sustainability session from home?
You’ve been working in policy around these issues. And with the magazine, we’re trying to talk about a sustainable and just internet using different vehicles of change. Can you share your policy vision as well for a policy path that we can follow to get towards this goal?
My policy vision is a very collaborative model that brings together different stakeholders. Sometimes when I look at the idea of governance where everyone is involved, people come from their positions and contribute as far as what their original positions were. I wish we were able to take an issue, say policy development around internet access, and just hack it: develop a policy that includes the actual women you want to connect to the internet. It includes the engineers, the developers and the researchers to draft the language of the text. That would be very powerful and different because it is able to take an issue from conceptualization to implementation.
Whereas at the moment, if you’re a researcher, the approach is to build the evidence, and then someone will come in and build it up, and then they write the policy. And then a government person will come in and say, we’ve implemented it.
When we’re thinking about sustainability and about justice, we have to think about what drives the inequalities—race, gender, class, ability, disability, language and so on. What does it mean to have a sustainability agenda? Does that sustainability agenda imply my practice of handing down old devices is problematic? To whom is it problematic? Who is taken into account when people are developing policies? Or is it because there is a Greenpeace movement saying this is how things are to be done?
Where is the space, what is the impact, who’s involved? Another way to say it: we need transformative policy development.
About the author
Chenai Chair is a Policy Researcher at World Wide Web Foundation and Mozilla Fellow, with a focus on building evidence for pro-poor and public interest digital policy. Currently exploring digital innovation and its impact on Africa’s social and economic growth as well as digital rights from a feminist perspective.