Between 14 and 18 December, I joined my colleague Tarakiyee, from APC, in Beirut, along with a dozen activists and human rights defenders from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), with a focus on internet rights. We aimed to form a strong working group to influence internet governance issues from a civil society perspective in the region, starting with our participation in the fourth annual edition of the Arab Internet Governance Forum (AIGF), taking place the same week.
Internet Policy Camp
The Middle East and North Africa, a strategic area vital to global stability, has more than 123 million internet users, which amount to 52.2% of the population. The online challenges, from state surveillance to online violence against women, are countless. To discuss those challenges, our pre-IGF group gathered at the American University of Beirut (AUB), in the offices of the Issam Fares Institute.
Those of us organising the discussions – Social Media Exchange (SMEX), 7iber, Global Voices, Issam Fares Institute, and APC – were joined by four journalism students from the Notre Dame University, who were interested in knowing more about internet rights priorities and advocacy in Lebanon and the rest of the region. This was the first challenge to overcome, since it involved levelling participants with years of experience working on internet rights with students with lots of energy but little background on what is at stake regarding internet governance in MENA.
We did a diversity of exercises, from knowledge sharing to capacity building, starting with a spectrum exercise where participants had to react to statements like “Everyone has the right to be anonymous online”, “Freedom is more important than security”, or “Online harassment is not violence”. If you have participated in an APC workshop, you will know that we are big fans of the spectrum exercise as a leveller and ice-breaker.
We complemented the knowledge and skill sharing with an overview of internet governance issues by Fahd A. Batayneh, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)‘s Middle East Stakeholder Engagement Manager.
Some of our discussions were private, but we shared parts of it on social media, some of which can be found on the hashtag #MENAInternetPolicyCamp on Twitter. And we took some photos.
Then we focused on advocacy. What did we want to accomplish as a group, keeping the upcoming Arab IGF? The answers had the form of two documents:
A document advocating internet access as a fundamental right, key to people’s empowerment and to the advancing of other rights in the region.
A document advocating applying the 13 Necessary and Proportionate Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance to the Tunisian landscape. Due to the transition to a democratic process the country is going through, and the fact that a big Tunisian delegation was attending the Arab IGF, it was decided that special attention should be paid to this country.
With these two goals in mind, and with strong ties developed among us, we joined the Arab IGF with the intention of promoting civil society presence and concerns.
We moved from the lively AUB campus to Movenpick hotel, by the Beirut seashore, to the delight of many of us, especially the ones who live far away from the sea or have barriers to overcome to reach it. “I live next to this sea, and yet I never see it,” Palestinian participant Dalia Othman said, her feet deep in the sand. From a small group of activists with shared values and concerns on internet governance to a huge multistakeholder venue.
What did we find?
There were more than 1,300 participants in this fourth edition of the Arab IGF. It was presented as “the last IGF of 2015, therefore key to the conclusions on internet governance” after months of heated discussions and meetings worldwide. Both the Lebanese Ministry of Telecoms and Ogero – the fixed network owner and maintainer, and organiser of the conference – stressed the importance of this year’s motto: “internet economy for sustainable development”.
The agenda consisted of plenary sessions and workshops, the former addressing more general issues, the later exploring more nuanced challenges and strategies. Cyber threats in the region and worldwide, cyberlegislation and compliance with international legislations and frameworks, technical frameworks and data privacy, and financial needs, were the most highlighted issues.
The best of the Arab IGF
Better understanding of the current digital scenario and the challenges ahead, like the role of Country Code Top-Level Domains in the region and the very small role that the Arab world plays in the ICANN and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
The diversity of actors posed good opportunities for networking, both offline and online. There was a good number of civil society representatives among the participants, although they had little presence in the main sessions.
The opportunity to engage with state-owned operator Ogero, which controls most of the market share, and whose role is key to understanding the situation of the internet in Lebanon. Ogero CEO Abdel Moneim Youssef was present in virtually every panel.
Listening to the reality of each stakeholders’ interests and concerns. The conference was dominated by the issues of cybersecurity, terror threats and national security concerns, which overshadowed the importance of issues like freedom of expression, freedom of assembly or privacy. Having civil society contest such lines of thought is as difficult as it is necessary.
Workshops with strong content provided a diverse and nuanced view of some of the hottest issues and challenges in the region, such as the one that APC and SMEX participated in – Obstacles to Freedom of Expression Online –, and Freedom of opinion and expression on the Internet in the Arab region and their impact on human development, which featured renowned Bahraini human rights defender Maryam Al-Khawaja.
The Freedom is their Right campaign, organised by Maharat Foundation, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) to raise awareness about the situation of prisoners of conscience in the region.
Moez Chakchouk. It is always an eye opener to talk to former chairman and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) Moez Chakchouk, who played a key role in promoting civil society engagement in the development of the internet in Tunisia. “Before cybersecurity, we need to talk trust. People need to know that their rights are protected,” he insisted during the conference, where he stressed the importance of youth and civil society involvement in the internet ecosystem. An interview with Chakchouk on the state of the Tunisian internet will be published on APC.org soon, so stay tuned.
The worst of the Arab IGF
Although civil society was present at the conference, there was little representation of civil society concerns at the main sessions. The plenaries were mostly composed by government and internet providers’ representatives, whose concerns – cybersecurity, financial issues – dominated the programme.
All-male panels. There was a real lack of gender equality, which many attendees stressed, both during questions and answers and via Twitter. Panels on strategic issues like the plenary session on Cybersecurity and Trust were composed by seven men, no women, and although we tried to bring up gender rights online and APC’s Feminist Principles of the Internet, overall there was very little attention paid to rights in general, and to gender rights in particular.
Strong focus on financial issues, little rights-based approach. In fact, from a human rights defender point of view it was alarming to hear statements such as the following: “There is no such thing as internet rights, we should just ensure that people have the financial status to buy what they need out of the internet.”
Virtually no presence of alternatives to privately owned technology. Open source software alternatives were not part of the discussions, and were only mentioned by attendees during the questions and answers portions of the programme.
For the Arab IGF to really be productive and contribute to progress in the region, civil society voices need to be incorporated at the different stages of the process. They should take an active part in the discussions, instead of being mere spectators waiting for the questions and answers. A focus on internet rights, which is currently overshadowed by financial issues and national security / cybersecurity concerns, is key. Issues of freedom of expression and privacy are strategic to internet governance, and key to promoting vibrant societies in the region in the face of increasing extremism.
Gender equality needs to become a priority. Enforcing the presence and active contribution of women both in the design and the development of the conference, and incorporating gender rights concerns, with the Feminist Principles of the Internet as a framework, would make a big difference.
This is the first of a series of blog posts, articles, interviews that we will be sharing with insights and reflections on the last edition of the Arab IGF. Stay tuned for more.
Photo: During the MENA Internet Policy Camp at the AUB, December 2015, Beirut.