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Without Net Neutrality, Women and Girls Will Lose Out Online

Activists at the NYC Rally to Save the Internet earlier this month. (Photo: Free Press)

Feminism has been in the headlines in recent months: From Emma Watson sharing her awakening story in front of the United Nations to Beyoncé's bold backdrop during the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony, there is mounting evidence that the feminist movement is getting more coverage than ever.

But when you think about feminist issues, what comes to mind? Topics like reproductive rights, domestic violence or equal pay are often the first things mentioned. But it’s increasingly clear that Net Neutrality belongs on that list.

What does feminism have to do with Net Neutrality? A lot. The voices of women and girls have long been under- and misrepresented in the mainstream media. The Women’s Media Center’s annual reports highlight the systemic inequality that contributes to this longstanding problem. Media is a powerful tool that both reflects and shapes our culture; if we don’t have diverse voices in the mix, injustice will persist.

Women have used the open Internet to talk back to the mainstream media and create their own spaces online. During Sept. 15’s NYC rally to save the Internet, Jennifer Pozner of Women in Media & News noted that women have built power online via the feminist blogosphere and social media for about a decade. This has allowed feminists to influence the dominant narrative and put forward a more gender-aware analysis.

When the media first began covering the 2013 Isla Vista killings, there was public speculation about the motives of shooter Elliot Rodger. Thanks to the open Internet, Pozner said, women were able to highlight evidence of Rodger’s misogyny as the basis for his crimes. Before the hashtag #NotAllMen started trending worldwide, many outlets had failed to acknowledge that Rodger’s hatred of women was his motivation.

When Washington Post columnist George Will wrote that survivors of campus sexual assault received “privileges” for their “coveted status,” the feminist Internet responded with the hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege. The media then stepped up and covered the trauma survivors of sexual violence endure—and the uproar led at least one newspaper to drop Will’s column.

As both of these examples illustrate, losing Net Neutrality means losing the power to push the media to do better. It means losing a space where we can access news and information by and for women. It means losing the ability for us to share our stories in our own voices.

Women make only 78 cents for every dollar men earn—and the gap is even wider for women of color. What if women had to pay more to access the same feminist content they currently enjoy online? What if an Internet service provider blocked a young woman’s post against a school’s sexist dress-code policy?

This could all come to pass if FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s flawed Internet rules are approved—which is why Free Press joined Women, Action, & the Media (WAM!) in organizing a letter urging FCC Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel to protect true Net Neutrality.

The letter highlights the many ways in which the open Internet has emboldened feminists. “Silencing dissenting voices,” the letter reads, “will be easier than ever—and legal—under these proposed rules.”

The letter also notes that the Internet has enabled women to broadcast their messages far and wide. In 2013, WAM! pressured Facebook into finally taking gender-based hate speech on its platform more seriously; the company vowed to update its policies and practices.

Student survivors of sexual assault have used the Internet to call their schools out on covering up sexual violence and push the Obama administration to protect students’ safety. In response, the administration created a task force to study the needs of survivors on college campuses and recently announced a related public-service campaign. Feminists have used the Internet to break barriers and take action on issues they couldn’t otherwise address publicly. In short: The Internet helps feminists fight the patriarchy.

Justice of any kind can’t happen unless those who are marginalized are able to share their experiences and points of view freely. The steady progression toward gender equity that I’ve seen during my lifetime would be severely hampered if we lost Net Neutrality. This is something women—and people of all genders—can’t lose.

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Wagatwe Wanjuki

Wagatwe focuses on online engagement around Free Press campaigns. She is a feminist writer and activist who learned the power of new media when she created an online campaign to improve Tufts University’s sexual assault policy. Her work has appeared in Feministing, Mic, The American Prospect and Essence. She has appeared on The Daily Show, Democracy Now! and All in with Chris Hayes.

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