Ep 5 | Sept 16, 2019


Amira Dhalla on Internet, governance and getting comfortable with discomfort

Kira Allmann: So, Amira, would you mind just introducing yourself, what your affiliations are, and what brought you to decolonizing the internet?

Amira Dhalla: My name is Amira Dhalla, and I lead Global Participation at Mozilla Foundation. I’ve spent the better part of 10 years working with communities and people around the world understanding what does equity, fairness, safety, equality and openness look like for them on the internet and through digital programs and platforms. So through that lens, I came to Decolonizing the Internet to bring and represent the stories of the communities and networks that I work in but also say how do we connect and collaborate across each other and the communities that we work with and connect spaces and places but also bring the work to places like Cape Town, to this event, to Wikimania, and others.

Kira Allmann: So what were you thinking this even would be like when you came?

Amira Dhalla: Right. When I came to Decolonizing the Internet, I thought I was gonna sit in a room with a bunch of rabble rousers who are willing to question many of the things that we have and know in place right now and today and are people who are willing to stand up for the equality, fairness and justice of others around the world, whether it’s in their communities or in other people’s communities, or in places we are in together and be able to unpack what those things have meant, what they mean now, and what we want them to mean and who they mean that for.

Kira Allmann: And did you feel like you got that out of the last two days, or what was it actually like for you?

Amira Dhalla: Yeah. I actually find that there’s so much solidarity with the people that are here and curiosity. So what I really was excited for is there’s all these warriors in the room who are working on issues that are important, who are doing the work that matters, who are not just looking for ways to empower themselves and their work but are also looking for ways in which they can learn from others and take what people are doing in other parts of the world and communities back to their community, and I think that level of curiosity is just so strong and important, and it’s people who are willing to have fun and be engaging and do it in ways that are collaborative and open and sort of walk the talk that is just super important. And you know at the very least, like, being here just a big energy booster for myself personally, and I think that individuals who are working on these issues need things like energy, they need spaces to heal, and share, to be able to continue to do this work, and that sort of is the energy that I’m leaving with after being here.

Kira Allmann: What is it that’s so energy-draining in this work?

Amira Dhalla: Doing this work means that individuals who represent issues, people, locations, carry a lot of weight. They carry weight of stories, of people that have been misrepresented, of issues that have not been seen or heard, of marginalized communities who are struggling battles and are dealing with a magnitude of issues, and so, you know, there’s a lot of weight for the individuals like ourselves who are pushing this work forward to make sure that these people that we care about are seen in a light that is global and amongst the table pretty much, dealing with this sort of work at a higher level. And so being in that place, we carry the stories and the challenges, and the weight of the work, and we are fighting for these people, ourselves included, and so we are often drained because of the act of simply just trying to be in these spaces and do all those things at once.

Kira Allmann: Was there a moment in your own personal life or professional life in which you realized the internet needed to be decolonized?

Amira Dhalla: I am a woman of color who lives in what is considered a western country. And, you know, part of my experience has been that I cannot show up in spaces or I cannot act a certain way in spaces without being attacked or pushed out or at risk. And so part of me, on a personal level, just knows that, you know, people like me are not welcome online and that’s harmful and hurtful to myself and the others that are very much like me, which are predominantly a large number of people in the world. So that’s one personal issue, and then also just, you know, being in a Western country and working on issues that are global with people around the world and really understanding the impact that the country or place that I am in has on the internet and how that is not representative of the people that I work with makes me feel frustrated. And understanding that, you know, I come from a privilege and acknowledging that privilege but also then learning what is my role with that privilege to actually come to the internet and say, you know, I think the communities and spaces and countries I’m in have colonized the internet, and what is the work that I need to do to be able to open up space for others?

Kira Allmann: Mm hm. I think one thing that’s really come up in the last two days is really the importance and the power of language - the language we use and how we interrogate it - and so I’m just wondering what you think about using the concept of decolonizing. Is that a useful term to use in this space? Were there other ideas that came up in the discussions you were part of?

Amira Dhalla: I would say colonizing and decolonizing have quite negative implica - like, connotations with them over the past year, many years, actually. And so words like that are very hard because they make people uncomfortable. And they make them sensitive. ‘Cause to say, you know, to someone who lives in a Western country, you have colonized the internet, is not a good feeling. But, you know, the work of us, where we carry the weight, where we do the hard stuff is actually just, you know, having these uncomfortable conversations where it’s difficult for people to be in these situations and understand their privilege and then work at unpacking that. So as a whole, I’m supportive of making people uncomfortable ‘cause I think that can lead to powerful change, and I think that that inevitably happens in communities in the work we’re doing, but I will say that I think those words have longstanding negative connotations to them that make them hard to use when doing such powerful work that is positive and having this brash feeling that people have when they first hear it.

Kira Allmann: Why the internet? Why should we care about the internet and whether it’s colonized or decolonized or anything? I mean, Im a digital ethnographer, and I still find it difficult sometimes when I go to academic conferences, you still get the assumption, just at a base level, that the internet isn’t real. This is real life, and the internet is this virtual space that is frivolous. It doesn’t really matter. So why should we be having a conversation about the internet?

Amira Dhalla: Well the internet is the world’s largest living resource, and so I can’t even describe it more than that and the importance of what it means to people in terms of the knowledge they gain, the connections they build, the economic opportunity that it provides, and it really creates this place where people can excel at quicker rates but also do things in more holistic and connected and open and collaborative ways, which provide so many opportunities. So I do think that it’s the largest resource that is super valuable to everyone but also is this place that - or is this thing - that is super at risk. And that’s scary to think about this largest resource that’s only gonna become bigger in dominance in relationship to our lives but is also one of the scary things to think about that how much it is the - how much it is at risk.

Kira Allmann: Yeah.

Amira Dhalla: I will also say that since it’s one of the newest resources, as it relates to resources that you depend on to live, and - you know - the internet, you do, many people do depend on to live, it is less likely to have rules and governance around it because it is so new, so we are unsure on how to treat it or what we do that protects human rights as a whole, and that to me is super important when thinking about the internet and its importance is just that, you know, compared to things like water and food and things that are critical and important, there has been long-standing governance around this. Like, including land and areas and countries that have withstanded [sic] time and time, whereas the internet has been this open playground, where it has so much opportunity but also is this place that because there hasn’t been secure governance, has the ability to be taken advantage of as well.

Kira Allmann: Yeah.

Amira Dhalla: And policy - like, the fact is that there’s not as much policy around these issues to govern how people act online, and that means that people can act in any which way. If you think of an example like sexual harassment online, you have people that are largely advocating for that to be considered a criminal offense, and you know what? What happens online is as important as what happens offline. And we find it so easy and have many rules that govern offline harassment, but we are very hesitant to implement the same rules or the same punishments for something that happens online even though it happens at alarming rates that are equally as traumatizing to the people that they happen to - and dangerous, not just traumatizing for the person but actually dangerous for them.

Kira Allmann: Yeah. Is there anything that i haven’t asked you, or that you haven’t gotten to say, that you’d like to say now that we’re kind of wrapping up the weekend and you’re going to take some of the ideas and the conversations you heard here home?

Amira Dhalla: I think that the people that have attended Decolonizing the Internet are a powerful cohort and so I’m really excited to see how people within this cohort actually continue to connect and find ways for their work to connect and collaborate and build upon each other. And so I’m really looking forward to seeing how that grows and how that continues to be a cohort of people that the fabulous team at Whose Knowledge? Can actually leverage as the one singular power in solidarity with each other. And so I think it’s really important to build out, you know, next steps that feel tangible, that feel realistic, that feel like they’re inclusive to many perspectives, and actually just put them out there for people to do now but also continue doing in the future.

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