Our online experience would be very different without men in charge, but it wouldn't necessarily be a utopia.
On the night of 29 October 1969, 21-year-old student Charley Kline sat hunched over a computer screen in a windowless room with pistachio-coloured walls at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). As his computer science supervisor Leonard Kleinrock looked on, Kline carefully typed out a single word. Moments later, on a screen some 350 miles (560km) away at Stanford University, Kline's message popped up: "Lo" it read.
It was a sputtering start (the system crashed before Kline's full message of "Login" could be transmitted) but both sides cheered: it was the first time two computers had communicated virtually. And it marked the birth of what would become the internet.
Back then it was called the Arpanet – a communications system conceived by the US Department of Defense to allow information to be shared between computers on a network. Some fifty years on, the internet has matured from experimental military infancy consisting of just four computers into civilian and commercial adulthood that forms vast global cyberspace.
To create the technology that lets you read these words on your screen today, thousands of people were involved. Many of them were women, including Radia Perlman (an American engineer and mathematician who helped make internet routing reliable and scalable), Karen Spärck Jones (the British computer scientist whose work underpins most search engines) and her compatriot Sophie Wilson (who was instrumental in designing the BBC Micro and the ARM microprocessors found in more than half the world's electronics today).
"Women were really instrumental in early computing and programming," says Mar Hicks, an associate professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
But their efforts often went unrecognised, says Dame Stephanie Shirley, who founded an all-women's software company in the 1960s. And although a lot of women were involved, the design of the internet "was, of course, predominantly by men", she says.
To be more precise: straight white men, with many hailing from Silicon Valley. But what would the internet be like if a more heterogeneous group – people of all colours, genders and sexual orientations – had helped to build the online services and systems we use today? What if women and minorities were given more seats at the table, and had had a bigger say in its design?
While it's impossible to go back and alter history, this hypothetical question reveals how men have left indelible marks on the internet – from the way it's built and how it looks, to the means with which we use it to express ourselves and communicate with others. It's not a given, of course, that women and minorities at the top would necessarily have acted any different, but many believe they would have. If so, what would these different decisions have looked like? And would we have an alternative internet that is fairer and safer for everyone?
Charlotte Webb, who teaches internet equality at the University of the Arts London and is the co-founder of the nonprofit the Feminist Internet, believes the online world could be based on an entirely different business model with women and minorities at the helm. Today, most online platforms are driven by a single-minded pursuit: to gather information from users, bombard them with targeted ads and generate revenue.
"Social media prioritises advertising, revenue, attention, economy," says Webb, which she believes arises from a "patriarchal", "capitalist", overwhelmingly "white" orientation. Of course, female and minority chief executives can also be profit-driven (interestingly in some countries companies with more female board members tend to outperform those dominated by men, including some of the biggest companies in the world). But Webb thinks they might be more open to embracing different business models – for instance, ones that demonstrate environmental sustainability, social justice, corporate responsibility, human rights, and collective emancipation.
"I think these models are more likely to emerge if there are more diverse people in positions of power, coming with different perspectives, traditions, and motivations," she says.
A more varied team might also result in an internet that is more international in its outlook with a greater sensitivity and awareness of non-Western cultures. This would avoid embarrassing "foot-in-mouth" situations, such as in 2016 when the Indian Supreme Court ordered Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Bing to remove ads offering ultrasound and prenatal sex-testing – services illegal in a country with one of most unbalanced gender ratios and highest female infanticide rates in the world. The search engines were also made to block 43 keywords related to such testing.
"If there had been more people of colour, there may have well been greater recognition that when we operate in a country, we have to have an expertise to understand the local situation," says Anupam Chander, a law and technology professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. "It requires a very specific cultural knowledge to understand something is problematic."
With a more heterogeneous bunch in charge of creating the internet, we might also see a more multilingual online landscape. Presently, there is criticism that the internet is dominated by English and a handful of other languages. There are nearly 7,000 languages and dialects in the world, but just 10 of these account for nearly 80% of all online content.
The safety tools on the internet might look different too. For example, social media users might be able to verify their accounts without giving up their phone numbers, as Facebook – the most popular platform in the world today – and WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook's parent company Meta, currently demand. This could make users less vulnerable to unsolicited messages or having their home addresses and other information that's linked to phone numbers being leaked in hacking incidents.
They might also have the option of using a pseudonym on their accounts. Most other platforms already allow for this, but "at present, Facebook still needs to know your real name", says Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project, a Delhi-based NGO. However "there's plenty of evidence that this harms vulnerable people", she says. For example, a transgender woman who's in the middle of transitioning, or a person in India who might be targeted because of their caste. Some research indicates that anonymity can actually lead to better behaviour online.
In 2015 Facebook announced a compromise to its real-name policy to allow some members to request to use pseudonyms if they could show they have a "special circumstance", but they would still need to verify their true identity. Campaign groups have criticised the step as it requires people who are potentially vulnerable to reveal intimate details of their personal lives.
A spokesperson for Facebook says that a real name is required on its site to prevent impersonation and identify misrepresentation: "Our authenticity policies are intended to create a safe environment where people can trust and hold one another accountable."
Webb, however, believes this position is short-sighted.
"If you're a white man in Silicon Valley or Silicon Roundabout in London, if you've never experienced anything from small microaggressions up to very severe violence throughout your life, then it's not your natural tendency to think about those things when designing technologies," she says.
But women and minorities bear the brunt of online abuse. Overall, nearly six in 10 women worldwide experience some form of online violence, as a 2020 survey of more than 14,000 young women from 22 countries found.
Another study of more than 1,600 revenge porn cases revealed that 90% of victims were women.
And in 2020, a Pew Research Center poll found that women in the US were three times more likely than men to face sexual harassment online. Seven in 10 lesbian, gay or bisexual adults experienced abuse, compared with four in 10 straight adults. And more than half (54%) of black or Hispanic targets believed race was a driving factor for their harassment, versus 17% of white targets.
Because of these disparities, women and minorities are more likely to "think of edge cases" where groups of people might be overlooked, "foresee problems, and predict the ways in which technologies might be misused", says Webb.
Had they been in charge of creating the internet, they may well have prioritised safety measures. And they might have done so from the start. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, for example, now ban revenge porn on their sites. But they only did so in 2015 — roughly a decade since their respective launches — after facing pressure from leading female activists, says Chander. "That should have been the policy from the very start."
None of the platforms the BBC contacted were willing to explain why it had taken 10 years to implement the policies.
Women can often see the world in a way that means they are more likely to see problems that might otherwise be missed by men (Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)
When Twitter first launched in 2006, they "proudly said they would be the free speech wing of the free speech party", Chander says. Its creators – four white men, two of whom were ex-Googlers – envisioned a platform where people could broadcast their thoughts openly, regardless of what they were.
But 10 years later, Twitter introduced policies clamping down on hate speech, which by then had spiralled out of control – a 2016 analysis found that out of 19 million tweets made over a four-year period, 40% contained racially offensive language.
Today, Twitter is a "much more protective" platform, says Chander. "But they came late to the game."
"I think that if it had been led by women, they would have recognised that problem much earlier because much of the animus on the internet is directed against women, especially women of colour who are doubly targeted," he says.
Hicks adds: "A lot of women, particularly black women, had been warning about the ways these platforms were being abused to promote disinformation and attack black people." For example, the hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing was started in 2014 to weed out fake Twitter accounts created by trolls masquerading as black feminists. The trolls soon disbanded their disinformation campaign, but re-emerged two years later as the alt-right, spreading fake news in the run up to the 2016 US elections.
"Black women saw the alt-right tactics on Twitter coming a mile away," says Hicks. "But people didn't listen to them until after Donald Trump had been elected."
Apart from focusing on safety features, women and minorities could moderate online content very differently if in charge. Search engines and social media platforms rely on a combination of human moderators and artificial intelligence to flag illegal, obscene, offensive, or false material on their sites.
"Content moderation rules tend to disproportionately censor any content that doesn't fit the heteronormative traditions that are built both into the system and the people doing the moderating," says Ari Waldman, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University.
Carolina Are, a researcher who studies online abuse at Northumbria University in the UK, agrees. Content moderation "replicates what the patriarchy does, which is ruling what women should and shouldn't do with their bodies, and then punishing them if they deviate from the accepted trajectory of that".
She believes that if women had had more control over the internet, it would be a very different place visually speaking.
Are is an avid pole dancer who regularly posts pictures and workout videos online. She doesn't solicit sex and never does nudity, but has had her TikTok and Instagram accounts deleted or shadow banned – where content is blocked in a way that is not immediately obvious to the user – on numerous occasions. In a recent occasion Instagram got in touch with Are a day later to say her account was restored after a "content moderation error".
"Sometimes women, just by existing in their bodies, not even performing a sex act, are banned," says Are.
Some of her black plus-sized friends who posted bikini selfies were also flagged "with threats of their accounts being deleted", she says. "This happened as soon as the image was posted, which makes me think it was algorithmic moderation."
"This doesn't tend to happen to men," Are adds. "Clearly in the eyes of those who made social media platforms, being female means sex."
If women and minorities were in charge, people might feel freer to express themselves without fear of censorship or retaliation, Are believes.
Search results could also be less sexist. "What we see on the internet reinforces a lot of negative stereotypes in women, who are often hypersexualised," says Suzie Dunn, an assistant professor of law at Dalhousie University in Canada.
In her 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Noble, an associate professor of information studies at UCLA, lamented how searching for black, Latina, Asian, or Hispanic girls often led to porn sites. And that Google's autocomplete function filled in "women should…" search requests with "stay at home, be slaves, be in the kitchen" (typing "women shouldn't…" prompted similarly sexist results of "have rights, vote, work") – a trend that the United Nations highlighted in a 2013 awareness campaign.
Internet searches can also be racist, writes Noble. She cites examples of how words such as "beautiful" and "professor" overwhelmingly yielded images of white people, and how Googling "unprofessional hairstyles for work" threw up pictures of black women – leading to an uproar in 2016. Even searching for "woman" or "girl" results in pictures that are overwhelming white, which are the result of biased practices that were "unthinkingly adopted" from earlier industries and technologies, according to researchers such as Jonathan Cohn, who studies digital culture at the University of Alberta.
Search results can become biased when programmers use training datasets that aren't sufficiently diverse – something that might be avoided if there were more women and minority coders, who could provide a wider frame of reference.
Having said that, the internet isn't always a dark place for women and minorities. It's given them a platform to share their experiences. For instance, #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter sparked global movements against sexual abuse and harassment, and racism, respectively.
It's also given previously underrepresented people a voice and a means to create content that "accurately represents who they are and what their life is," says Dunn.
Crucially, it provides many with a sense of community. "I grew up in northern Canada and if you were, say, a transgender teenager in the Yukon, you might be the only one," says Dunn, referring to her country's least populated province. "But with the internet, you could find your peers."
"Groups of people who in the past might have felt alone now find their spaces online," she says.
But when it comes to imagining an alternative internet run by women and minorities, it's important not to idealise the situation, experts caution. Profit-making – a defining aspect of today's internet – would likely still be a key driving force. Whether you're queer or black, you could "still be a data-extractive capitalist", says Waldman.
And there's no guarantee that women and minorities will act differently to men if they rose to the top. "If our societies were arranged in a matriarchy or something where they had all the power, they might do whatever they want, damn the consequences," says Hicks. "We could end up with just as problematic a situation."
An alternative internet "would be a lot more inclusive", adds Abigail Curlew, a PhD student at Ottawa's Carleton University who researches trolling on social media. "But I don't know if it would be utopian."
That's because the majority of the internet's problems stem from the real world. "Social media is just a mirror to society," says Lilian Edwards, a professor of law, innovation and society at Newcastle University. To tackle the issues women and minorities face online, we must address the discrimination and violence they face offline.
This means providing access to better education, healthcare, housing and so on. "People who have a stake in society usually don't dig it up under them," says Edwards.
Curlew agrees. "When communities become stronger, people become less violent and conflict-driven."
"In order to have big changes on the internet, we need to have big changes in real life," she says. Perhaps only then, regardless which gender or group is in control, will the internet go back to what it was originally meant for when Kline first sent out his two-letter message "Lo" – as a means for us to communicate with one another.