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Advocating for Openness: Nine Ways Civil Society Groups Have Mobilized to Defend Internet Freedom

by Admin — last modified Nov 26, 2017 03:58 AM
The debate over whether the Internet is a better tool for democratic empowerment or authoritarian control misconstrues the nature of the democratic challenges of the digital age.

The blog post by Sarah Oh was published by the Center for International Media Assistance on November 15, 2017


Key Findings

Civil society groups from the Global South are leading the charge to advocate for an Internet that remains open, pluralistic, and democratic. The nine case studies highlighted in this report demonstrate various ways groups in different countries have successfully fought for policies and norms that strengthen Internet freedom and digital rights. These strategies include awareness-raising, nonviolent direct action, regional and international coalition-building, and strategic litigation.

  • Media freedom advocates have been at the forefront of many Internet freedom efforts.
  • Threats to independent media online and freedom of expression continue to mount as authoritarian regimes become more technologically savvy.
  • Building broad civil society coalitions around Internet rights increases the chances of long-term success.

Introduction

The debate over whether the Internet is a better tool for democratic empowerment or authoritarian control misconstrues the nature of the democratic challenges of the digital age. The Internet is not a tool, but a complex domain of “competing forces and constraints.”1 These forces are comprised of powerful businesses, states, politicians, criminal enterprises, advocacy groups: in short, all of the elements present in any democracy. But in this cyber-democracy, forces compete in part on the shifting ground of the technological and physical infrastructure of the Internet, where some players wield more power than others with an ability to mold the terrain in their favor. Authoritarian states aware of what is at stake in the evolution of the Internet are beginning to engage in long-term and well-resourced efforts to undermine the democratic rights of citizens in this more fundamental way.

In a reference to the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that take down a specific website, these broader efforts represent what some have called a “distributed denial-of-democracy” (DDoD) attack aimed at reducing the utility of the Internet for genuine democratic discourse. These efforts, which are coordinated and well resourced, are often more insidious, harder to detect, and have the overall effect of undermining civic engagement and overall trust in the media ecosystem.

And while the diffuse and fast-changing nature of Internet can at times make it difficult for authoritarian regimes to exert their control, the complex interplay between technology, laws, infrastructure, and socio-political factors shaping the Internet make it equally difficult for democratic actors to counteract these DDoD strategies. As an additional obstacle, the values that underpin Internet freedom can be sidelined in the forums and governing bodies that set Internet standards by the dominance in those spaces of private tech companies concerned primarily with generating profits.

Formidable though they may be, these challenges are not insurmountable. Civil society groups from the Global South are leading the charge to advocate for an Internet that remains open, pluralistic, and democratic. The nine case studies highlighted in this report demonstrate various ways groups in different countries have successfully fought for policies and norms that strengthen Internet freedom and digital rights. These strategies include awareness-raising, nonviolent direct action, regional and international coalition-building, and strategic litigation.

Each of the following case studies corresponds to one of the nine guiding principles of a Democratic Framework to Interpret Open Internet Principles. This framework was collaboratively developed by a network of civil society groups worldwide to illuminate the ways that an open Internet is essential for the functioning of democratic societies. It was inspired by the norms and standards developed by the Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition (IRPC) of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum.

The framework is an important starting point for more effective, coordinated effort to ensure that the Internet remains a welcoming place for democratic life. Its aim is to create a consensus around the values that should shape the future development of the Internet. But moreover, it also provides an avenue for understanding and sharing knowledge on the concrete strategies that can be put into practice in different contexts to make sure that the Internet remains a level playing field. The following nine examples demonstrate how citizen groups can mobilize to enshrine such democratic principles in cyberspace.

“The debate over whether the Internet is a better tool for democratic empowerment or authoritarian control misconstrues the nature of the democratic challenges of the digital age.”

1. Freedom of Expression


In the Philippines, a cybercrime law introduced in 2012 proposed increasing penalties for libel and giving authorities unchecked power to track information online. Internet freedom activists worried several provisions of the law would infringe on freedom of expression by preventing Filipinos from freely posting content on websites, and participating in online forums and discussions without fear of being blocked or facing serious penalties. In response, pro-democracy organizations from across the political spectrum joined together to challenge the constitutionality of the law. Through protests, roundtables, and capacity building activities, they raised awareness and encouraged advocacy efforts around the dangers the law posted to freedom of expression and privacy. The Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), a digital rights organization founded after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship and the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA), a broad nationwide coalition of pro-democracy and Internet freedom advocates, were among the organizations in the front lines on the struggle. PIFA was even one of the 20 organizations to file 15 petitions to the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of the law.

Public efforts in the courts and actions in the streets contributed to the takedown of three contested provisions of the law, including provision that would allow government to block or restrict access to computer data. The Supreme Court declared these provisions unconstitutional and delayed implementation of the law. Despite public concerns about the surviving provisions, the national campaign against the cybercrime law led to a turning point for Filipino activists; it showed the power of people coming together and fighting for the importance of digital rights in the Philippines. Initially fragmented, the campaign led to a larger movement unified under the goal of protecting human rights and freedom of expression online. Thus, it took the introduction of a flawed law and active public campaigns to initiate a broader dialogue about privacy, surveillance, and digital security. Digital rights communities across Southeast Asia have been inspired by Filipino advocacy efforts, which they have understood to be an example of how to communicate the balance required between anti-cybercrime measures with fundamental rights to a public audience.

2. Freedom of Assembly and Association


Social media is an important organizing tool for journalists and advocacy groups in Uganda. Facebook, WhatsApp, and other messaging applications have been used to share political knowledge, connect leaders with supporters, and organize events — even share information about government abuses. During national ‘Walk to Work’ protests in 2011, organized to protest living costs after presidential elections, Facebook and Twitter provided a steady stream of updates from protestors, bystanders, and journalists.

Using social media, however, can have dangerous consequences for marginalized groups such as the LGBT community. The government of Uganda has been known to collect user information and prosecute individuals based on information shared on social media. Uganda is one of 76 countries where homosexuality is currently criminalized, and LGBT activists fear that their online conversations will be monitored and used against them. By posting information taken from photos and content posted on Facebook, a local tabloid exposed the identity of numerous members of the LGBT community in 2011 and again in 2014. The tabloid stories in 2011 are believed to have contributed to the killing of David Kato, a prominent gay rights activist.

Furthermore, the government has repeatedly restricted access for advocacy groups to use the Internet to share political information. In 2016, the country’s media regulator restricted the use of WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter to prevent the organizing of protests before presidential elections in February as the government had done before in 2011. In both cases, the electoral commission enforced the social media shut-down.

Civil society groups have responded in two ways. First, they have sought to deepen their digital security capacity. To protect against threats to journalists, LGBT organizations, and other groups have learned how to use Facebook and social media applications more securely and to implement other practices that increase their privacy. In the lead up to the 2016 election this included the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to share information. Civil society groups spread information about how to use them through radio broadcasts. The fact that the hashtag #UgandaDecides trended on Twitter shows how they were able to spread their knowledge through local networks and connect with international media. Secondly, civil society groups built coalitions with international organizations to draw attention to abuses taking place in Uganda. In 2016, Access Now supported a coalition of groups to demand that the government stop the Internet shutdown as part of the #KeepitOn campaign.

3. Accessibility


In Nigeria, national broadband plans have overlooked rural communities, leaving them with low bandwidth and high-cost options for Internet access. This means that broadband and mobile data fees are unaffordable to many in Nigeria, especially the poor. Fixed-line broadband subscriptions cost an average of 39 percent of average income, and mobile broadband packages cost 13 percent. Given that approximately 80 percent of Nigerians earn below the poverty line ($2 a day or less), access to the Internet is out of reach and unaffordable for a majority of citizens in Nigeria.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet, a global coalition working on Internet affordability, works with Nigerian civil society leaders to raise awareness around this issue through thematic working groups. The consumer advocacy and pricing transparency working group, for instance, works closely with a coalition of Nigerian NGOs that have been leading campaigns to raise awareness about pricing and taxation policies that have been proposed in Nigeria. One proposed policy includes imposing a nine percent tax on voice, data, and SMS services to consumers. This policy would make the Internet dramatically more expensive for Nigerian consumers. Groups say they worry about the consequences of the proposed policy in an environment where farmers are forced to climb trees just to get a stable Internet connection.

Civil society leaders who are part of the coalition have worked to build a healthy dialogue between regulators, civil society, and the government. A key strategy, according to activists, has been encouraging groups to find constructive ways to work with government and leveraging the interests of each of these groups to protect and drive down costs for Nigerian consumers. They seek to build relationships with the regulator and to inform them about ways to better communicate with and engage consumer groups, such as sharing their content through social media rather than press releases. Another important learning has been identifying champions within government to work on these issues.

4. Privacy and Data Protection


In Burma, gaps in the law have left citizens vulnerable when it comes to privacy and data protection. Restrictions on privacy have eased since the country’s transition from military rule, but a lack of data protection laws and general lack of awareness around privacy and data protection present significant challenges for protecting an open Internet.

Messaging applications such as Viber and Facebook Messenger, for example, are the de-facto tool for communication for activists and are used to organize political events and activities. Cheaper than voice calls, far more accessible than landlines, and easier to use than email, these tools are the primary way people in Burma communicate. Activists have received harsh penalties for sharing content that may be viewed as threatening state security. These applications are often not secure, making it possible for Burma state authorities or agents of the state to intercept their conversations. During a crackdown on student protests in March 2015, mobile phones were taken by police. Activists worried at the time that information on these phones would eventually be used against them.

Observing the need to protect activists and educate them about data protection, activists in 2016 formed a coalition, Digital Rights MM. The coalition, led by Phandeeyar, Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, Myanmar ICT for Development, and Free Expression Myanmar, has led a national conversation on the issue. Drawing on expertise from the region and international organizations, 22 local Burma-based organizations have been successful in pointing out gaps when it comes to privacy and freedom of expression in the national telecommunications law, a comprehensive law that oversees the development of the telecommunications sector in Burma. They also participated in meetings with the government and launched a public facing campaign #ourvoiceourhluttaw pushing to amend 23 articles, including one on lawful interception of data.

“Messaging applications such as Viber and Facebook Messenger, for example, are the de-facto tool for communication for activists and are used to organize political events and activities.”

5. Personal Safety and Security


In Pakistan, women face threats of physical, sexual, and psychological harassment online. Leaking explicit photos and threats of blackmail are growing increasingly more common. From 2014 to 2015, more than 3,000 cybercrimes were reported to the Federal Investigation Agency and of those cases, nearly half were targeted to women on social media. Observers estimate far more cases go unreported. In fact, in workshops conducted by the The Digital Rights Foundation, many female college students reported that they did not know cyber harassment was a crime.

Online platforms are an important space for political engagement, expression, and mobilization in Pakistan. Thus, online harassment directly impacts the political participation of women, including female journalists and women politicians. In 2016 the Digital Rights Foundation established a Cyber Harassment Helpline that women can reach out to for help when they are harassed on the Internet. One of the main objective of the helpline is to help bridge the trust deficit between survivors and law enforcement agencies. An analysis of more than 400 cases showed that the most common barriers to equal participation are non-consensual use of information, impersonation, account hacking, black mailing, and receiving unsolicited messages; the most targeted groups include women, children, human rights defenders, and minority communities. The Digital Rights Foundation has also been leading efforts to strengthen legal protections for women and responding to survivors by recommendations to law enforcement agencies and the government. Pakistan has a National Response Centre for Cybercrime, but it has faced challenges serving women outside of major cities.

6. Inclusion


In India, the population of people with disabilities is estimated to be as high as 150 million people, and the recorded rates of those who are vision-impaired are among the highest in the world. Indian digital rights advocacy groups, like the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) have worked to ensure that these individuals are able to participate fully online by promoting policies that prioritize accessibility. These include the National Policy on Universal Electronics Accessibility, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, and Guidelines for Indian Government Web (GIGW), which all require government information be shared in formats that are accessible. Advocacy groups, however, have successfully shown that policies alone are not enough and have taken action to ensure persons with disabilities have access to critical resources and information online.

Mobile phones in particular are a vital portal to access government services, but mobile applications remain largely inaccessible to many people with disabilities, especially those with vision disabilities. For example, CIS observed in 2015 that the MyGov, the Indian Government’s mobile citizen engagement platform and the Prime Minister’s application was highly inaccessible: screens cannot be navigated by visually impaired users and can also not be read using a screen reader. Based on this, CIS with other advocacy organizations worked on framing accessibility guidelines for mobile applications recommended to the Government of India as a standard. Advocacy groups, such as the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), have also been appealing to the private sector to ensure products designed to serve these needs are affordable and readily available to people with disabilities. They appeal to Indian companies and policymakers by advocating for the universal appeal of assistive technology to ensure disabled communities are not left behind.

Sustained advocacy, new legal mandates applied to public and private sectors, and increased research in this domain have helped advance the issue of accessibility of mobile applications. The country’s National Informatics Centre has set up a committee to revise the GIGW to bring them up to speed with international standards.

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