Research to challenge traditional approaches to digital rights

Youth and privacy in the Americas: InternetLab, Brazil


How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety.


Quick facts

Who: Mariana Valente from InternetLab

What: Research

Mission/vision: To foster academic debate around issues involving law and technology, especially internet policy.

Where: Brazil

Since: 2014

Years of operation (as of February 2018): 4

Works in the fields of: Digital rights

Post summary: InternetLab is a human rights research focused on internet policy issues in Brazil. In their quest to find evidence that challenged inequitable narratives about technological change, they studied judicial sentences of non-consensual image sharing, an issue affecting primarily young women, and embarked on a journey of advocacy on the topic.  

Highlight quote from the interview: “I worry a lot about the approach with kids that goes in the direction of ‘protect yourself, don’t send nudes because you could have revenge porn’, but it feels like it’s the same as saying ‘don’t have sex, avoid pregnancy’. I think there’s a parallel there. Most of the approaches we see rely on panic about the possibility of revenge porn. You have to talk about risk. But this approach of ‘don’t do it’ does not understand the specific context of sexual development that they’re going through.”

More resources: InternetLab’s website; The Body is the Code book on non-consensual image sharing in Brazil.


Like many countries worldwide, Brazil has worked over the last decades to provide internet access to more and more communities. Mariana Valente, the director of InternetLab, explains how things have evolved since these efforts started. “At the beginning, groups working on children’s rights, women’s rights, were separate from those working on digital rights. It has been especially in past year that organizations in digital rights in Brazil started to care about topics beyond what has been classically recognized as digital rights”.

 

The divide between digital rights and other human rights organizations in Brazil did not necessarily mean that they were ignoring each other, but that, in certain topics, the relationship between both sides was even antagonistic. “A few years ago, when we were speaking about digital rights and the role of most civil society organizations was to defend free speech or privacy online, it was as if you would not understand the other side of the table: police worrying about child pornography. [So] On one side, [it was about] prosecution of crimes online [the side of the police], and on the other, organizations trying to make the point that the internet was not all about crime – on the contrary, it was a place for the enjoyment of rights [digital rights organizations side]”. Ultimately, it seemed, “Going for child rights was a way to bring authoritarian policies to the internet.”

 

Bringing both sides together to collaborate makes sense because, according to Mariana, the division is no longer sustainable. “The idea of cyberspace doesn’t make sense anymore — in prominent cases of slut shaming, women were being shamed online and their houses were being covered in graffiti. It’s complicated to speak of online violence as if it were just online and addressed through internet policy. Online rights must be thought of from that perspective as well”. That’s a view that differentiates InternetLab from other digital rights organizations.

 

“These sides weren’t talking much, and we understood that data was needed to start this conversation”. The need for more data for internet policy in general was in fact what inspired a group of young researchers in Brazil to come together to create InternetLab, a research organization focused on internet policy in Brazil. They work on issues related to human rights and the internet, inequalities and identities, privacy and surveillance, information politics, and freedom of expression.

 

One of the examples of data that InternetLab has generated to update the discussion on freedom of expression, privacy and women’s rights is that related to their research on non-consensual image sharing. They read over a hundred decisions of the Sao Paulo court system and carried out interviews. “There was a general understanding in groups defending women’s rights that it was impossible to prosecute crime online. So there were not many resources for victims. And we knew that focusing on crime would be controversial in that stage of the discussion. We knew research would open up new possibilities by shining the light on controversies that weren’t getting discussed. There is the side of anonymity, then the side of those who didn’t like it. But when interviewing police we realized that anonymity was not an issue because the way this violence occurs has much to do with social surroundings, communities; it’s rare that a victim won’t know who started disseminating her image. […] It was a way to say that we can care about this issue AND digital rights”.

 

The body is the code, InternetLab’s book on non-consensual image sharing

 

Non-consensual image sharing is an issue that disproportionately affects women, but other intersections make the oppression even stronger. One of them is age. Mariana remembers that they “saw news in the paper about suicides of teenage girls in the periphery of Sao Paulo because of a particular form of revenge porn called ‘The top 10’, a phenomenon of slut shaming lists that became a school epidemic. We learned some activists in the south of Sao Paulo were organizing around this issue, getting the Congress to have a public hearing about this, and then we started to develop a case study. And we realized that, when speaking about teens, this problem had very specific characteristics.”

 

Mariana also reflected about the limitations their advocacy ecosystem faced when working on this issue with youth. “We saw that these kids were being revictimized by media all the time. There was a clash between media and activists because they kept demanding information about specific teenagers for the sake of the story. We reached the conclusion that, as a research group doing mainly policy work with interdisciplinary perspectives, we didn’t have the specific capacities to talk with youth who have gone through violent episodes. We didn’t speak to them directly. But we started to participate. After publishing the first version of our research we started to be invited by these activists to train kids on online safety. We weren’t doing things with kids directly. And that was our choice because we didn’t want to be one more agent victimizing these kids.”

 

InternetLab’s more direct work with youth fits into their efforts in information politics. They made a guide for media literacy on the internet and many of the recommendations were related to teens and young people approaching information online. Their research has fed their advocacy workshops, especially in their choice of approaches to discuss the issues at stake.  

 

“I worry a lot about the approach with kids that goes in the direction of ‘protect yourself, don’t send nudes because you could have revenge porn’, but it feels like it’s the same as saying ‘don’t have sex, avoid pregnancy’. I think there’s a parallel there. Most of the approaches we see rely on panic about the possibility of revenge porn. You have to talk about risk. But this approach of ‘don’t do it’ does not understand the specific context of sexual development that they’re going through.”

 

“I worry that this might lead to blaming the victim again because I think what has to be spoken of is disseminating something you’re not supposed to, that was shared with you in intimacy and trust and needs to be respected. If you focus on ‘don’t [send nudes], you will blame the victim. In our research we found that when the activists or children went to talk to the teachers, the first reaction was ‘Why did you send that? You shouldn’t have done that’, which will make things worse”.

 

After all the judicial research, after all the examples of the ways this advocacy has brought more harm than good – what is, ultimately, the discourse that InternetLab will promote on youth and privacy? “It’s about promoting safety and security in ways that promote the autonomy of people, not that will blame them”. In a world where many of the more secure sexting apps don’t have versions in Portuguese, what does “autonomy” mean? InternetLab’s on-going work will continue to bring light to this issue.