Exploring intersections: a feminist perspective on digital and foreign policy


Not even ten years after being mentioned for the very first time, feminist foreign policy has made it into the political mainstream: the guidelines ‘Shaping a Feminist Foreign Policy’ of the German Federal Foreign Office outline a strategic shift in German foreign politics. At the same time, digital policy has become more and more international.

The field of digital policy has become increasingly international in the past decade. As technology is developed in one place and rolled out in another, questions of global regulation, frameworks for international data exchange and protection, and internet governance have become more pressing. Digital policymaking tries to respond to these challenges by collaboration across national borders; the EU aims to set the global standard for data protection and platform regulation, nation-states send ambassadors not just to capitals but also to Silicon Valley, and the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport opened a stakeholder dialogue to discuss an international strategy to digital policymaking.

In other policy fields, another transformation has taken place: a feminist turn. At the core of this is feminist foreign policy, a systemic shift in foreign policy perspectives that centres on the individual and their well-being instead of the interest of a nation-state. While it started with a focus on gender inequalities, it has since shed light on other forms of structural discrimination and global power imbalances. Less than 10 years after then–Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström articulated the idea, feminist foreign policy has made it into the political mainstream: France, Canada, Mexico and Chile, among others, have since adopted it. 

In Germany, the Federal Foreign Office published its new guidelines on ‘Shaping a feminist foreign policy in 2023. It is in good company: other departments are exploring feminist approaches as well, such as the ‘Feminist development policy put forward by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development or the mention of a feminist digital policy in Germany’s digital strategy. Just one year after the world’s first Feminist Foreign Policy Summit featured a side event on feminist digital policy, we see these two topics converge on the international stage. 

This political shift builds on the work that feminist movements worldwide have long advocated for APC’s feminist internet principles; Francesca Schmidt’s Digital policy: a feminist introduction or SUPERRR Lab’s ‘Feminist tech policy are only a few in a long line of feminist thought on policy and technology. 

There are obvious overlaps between feminist foreign policy and digital policy. On the one hand, security issues are at the heart of foreign policy, and modern warfare is built on digital tools of surveillance and interception. On the other, technological standards and internet governance are shaped on international stages, and governments increasingly try to weigh in on these platforms, affecting human rights online. From a feminist point of view, it must be noted that digital transformation will exacerbate inequalities globally and within our societies (e.g. the labour market). 

The new feminist guidelines of the German Federal Foreign Ministry, although written with more traditional fields of foreign policy in mind, offer several starting points to connect them with digital policy issues:

The need for increased participation – and what stands in its way

The integration of the perspectives of women* and marginalized groups, including genders, is at the core of feminist foreign policy. This goes hand in hand with a second point of action: combatting sexual and gender-based violence, the main reasons for women withdrawing from positions of power and public life. This is also true in a digital context: according to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, women and gender non-conforming people are disproportionately affected by censorship and online gender-based violence. People with intersecting marginalized identities are especially at risk of facing attacks. They are also more often subject to online disinformation campaigns, which attack their reputation and, as a result, deter them from being active in the public sphere. This challenge will grow with the increasing use of large language models and text-to-image diffusion models that can create masses of credible-sounding texts or fake incriminating imagery. Current fact-checking institutions are not equipped to deal with this potential wave of high-quality disinformation material. At the same time, we see that tools for content moderation can especially be used to silence Black and Queer voices when they push back against online racism and hate.

The extractive nature of digital infrastructure

A feminist digital foreign policy needs to work towards a digital infrastructure that does not rely on exploitative labour an extractive economy in the Global South. But the socio-environmental impact of digital technologies has long been overlooked. The raw materials needed to build digital technology, like data centres, computers, smartphones and so on, are extracted under precarious and dangerous working conditions in regions facing military conflict or which are economically disadvantaged. The mining and recycling of raw materials are harmful to the environment and the people. The damage does not end with the extraction of raw materials. New technologies like AI require large amounts of computing power, typically requiring significant electricity. This electricity is often generated from fossil fuels, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. AI algorithms need large amounts of high-quality training data to learn and improve. This data is usually collected and labelled by human data workers, who perform tasks such as data cleaning, annotation and categorization. Much of this work is outsourced to countries with low wages, where workers work under exploitative working conditions.

Assessing risks in an intersectional manner

The impact of digital technology on social inequality is tangible. The most visible case in current debates is that of data-driven algorithmic systems (the so-called “artificial intelligence”) discriminating against individuals based on their gender, race or disabilities, be it directly or — more commonly — by proxy. In digital policy, advances have made impact assessments of digital applications mandatory for high-risk technologies, for example, by the European AI Act. Digital service providers can conduct some risk assessments (e.g. if mandated by the Digital Services Act), which is insufficient. These risk assessments must address the impact on social inequalities and individual risks. For this to be done, the perspectives of women and marginalized groups must be integrated into the assessment process.

Digital policy is not just an economic matter

It is not just privately owned companies whose products can discriminate or negatively affect social inequality. Digital transformation is also pushed by public administrations and the providers of public services. A recent study shows the correlation between poverty and digital exclusion, stemming from a lack of access to digital devices and a lack of experience in using digital services confidently. Feminist foreign policy calls for gender-sensitive or gender-targeted ways to invest money. The same ought to be true for investment in public digital services. Public services need to be designed and deployed context aware and gender sensitive. In an increasingly interconnected world shaped by migration and diverse societies, we need to share examples of good practices, as well as how to implement them and develop them further together. 

The need for a global feminist digital policy

Learning from feminist foreign policy, a feminist digital policy transgresses the limitations of current digital policy perspectives. Feminist digital policy stands for a paradigm shift: away from ‘higher, further, faster’ to ‘more sustainable, equitable and people-centred’. It reframes its priorities according to social, not merely economic, needs. Through an intersectional feminist lens, it addresses social issues such as accessibility, active participation, sustainability and equity. It works in fields currently not actively addressed by digital policy and aims to alleviate inequalities not just at a societal but at a global level. And most importantly, feminist digital policy is a (learning) process and not an agenda. To succeed in a challenging, constantly changing environment, we need to continually evaluate, learn and improve our methods. With the self-proclaimed goal to affect the world, digital policy has to be debated globally and thought of internationally, instead of pursuing the interest of individual nation-states. A feminist lens can help overcome this long-trained reflex and apply radically different policymaking approaches that empower and protect the people they intend to serve.

This article first appeared here: eu.boell.org