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APC's Deborah Brown delivering an oral statement at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council, June 2018. Image source: HRC.

Amid growing concern about digital surveillance and the restriction of rights online, APC and its network have continued to fight for a free and open internet that protects and enables human rights for all. This focus has been crucial to our mandate and mission since the outset, and it remains one of our key strategic priorities today.

In 2018, APC and its network made strides to address the challenge of building an internet that enables the exercise of human rights by developing and encouraging the adoption of policies that reinforce the importance of online rights at all levels of governance, and by building support for rights-based universal access programmes among civil society actors, human rights defenders and development practitioners.

Let’s take a closer look at how the APC community worked to protect and promote digital rights in 2018.

Shaping policy

APC and its network contributed extensively to shaping rights-focused digital policy on a global scale throughout 2018.

At the 37th and 38th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), APC and its partners shone a light on the importance of internet rights through contributions to panels, sessions and reports examining human rights issues in the digital sphere. Despite a trying year, which saw the withdrawal of the United States from the HRC and resistance from several states to progressive people-centred policies, the Council still managed to adopt a number of resolutions that contributed to the advancing of international norms concerning digital rights.

For example, the resolution on “The promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human right on the internet” included language and priorities put forward by APC and its partners, related to issues such as encryption, private sector responsibility, data protection and the gender digital divide.

In 2018, APC and its network also contributed to various treaty body reviews and Universal Periodic Reviews, influencing rights-based policy in South Africa, Bangladesh and Cameroon, among others. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern around low internet penetration and a lack of internet affordability in South Africa in its review of the country’s compliance with treaty obligations, echoing a shadow report by APC and partners. In Bangladesh, APC and its local partner, the Center for Social Activism, raised a number of human rights issues and violations in their joint submission to the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), including several recent killings of online activists, an ongoing lack of press freedom, and state-sanctioned censorship. The report outlined several recommendations, many of which were subsequently accepted by the government. Similarly, following Cameroon’s UPR process, the government accepted several recommendations that reflected points raised in a joint submission by APC and partners, related to the rights to peaceful assembly, association and expression online, and unlawful restrictions on internet and mobile service provision.

APC helped to shape international cybersecurity standards by influencing documents such as the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace’s norm on the protection of the public core of the internet, which was included in the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace and gained the support of the European Parliament. Due in part to APC’s advocacy, the Paris Call includes a relatively strong human rights focus.

Similarly, echoing APC’s priorities, the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression focused on content moderation online and recommended that platforms model their content guidelines after international human rights standards. APC prepared an illustrated summary of the report to highlight its main points in a more accessible format.

In 2018, UNESCO member states endorsed the Internet Universality Indicators. These core principles were developed by APC on behalf of the Internet Indicators Consortium, a group that includes ICT Development Associates, Research ICT Africa and LIRNEasia. Led by David Souter, the project involved multiple consultations as well as pre-testing and piloting of indicators over an 18-month period. The framework is intended to enable civil society actors to assess and advocate for internet on a national level that adheres to the ROAM principles (Rights, Openness, Access and Multistakeholder).

Women’s rights online

APC strengthened its work around women’s and girls’ digital rights in various ways in 2018.

In a historic move, the HRC adopted a resolution on online gender-based violence (GBV): “Accelerating efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls: preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in digital contexts”. The resolution, which builds upon years of policy advocacy by APC and its network, recognises online GBV as a violation of human rights and recommends the use of international human rights policy to ensure that any response to this growing issue does not further limit the rights of women.

In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly also adopted a resolution on “The right to privacy in the digital age”, incorporating important points brought forward by APC and civil society partners. The resolution highlights privacy as a gendered issue, demands an end to unlawful government-led surveillance, and stresses the need to enshrine the right to privacy in the development of machine-learning technologies as well as the collection and storage of personal information, particularly biometric data.

The report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the elimination of all forms of violence against women specifically addressed online gender-based violence using a human rights lens, which was a key step toward the watershed resolution on online GBV discussed above. This important and unprecedented focus owes much to the APC Women’s Rights Programme’s more than decade of work on mapping, analysing and combating online GBV around the world.

The APC Women’s Rights Programme and its network of members continued many of their other multifaceted advocacy activities throughout 2018. The highlights of this work will be discussed in detail in the next article on APC’s strategic priorities, which focuses on building a feminist internet.

Exploring rights through APC subgrants

In 2018, multiple APC members took advantage of APC project grants, supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), to fund initiatives which explore digital human rights challenges in their respective communities and regions.

Responding to the erosion of human and digital rights in Myanmar, where dissidents have been intimidated and jailed through the 2013 Telecommunications Act and online misinformation and hate speech have become more common, EngageMedia produced two short films in partnership with another APC member, the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO). The films, which are accompanied by educational and campaign resources, are intended to raise the profile of digital rights challenges in Myanmar and support the work of human rights defenders, activists and educators as well as inform media discussions in the country. On 16 December, 2018, EngageMedia, MIDO and Phandeeyar Innovation Lab launched the films, “Are You Ready?” and “It’s Time to Talk”, at a screening in Yangon, with the hopes of raising awareness, empowering local citizens to speak up and building the movement to fight for rights in Myanmar both online and offline.

In 2018, the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) launched a research project exploring the role of internet companies in upholding and promoting the exercise of human rights online. With a focus on Kenya and making use of the Ranking Digital Rights index and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, KICTANet will create a policy brief mapping the terms of use and privacy policies of these local intermediaries from a rights-based perspective. To accompany their findings, they will also develop workshops and educational videos. The initiative aims to encourage policy advocacy, capacity building and ongoing research in this area.

In recent years, Macedonia has been rocked by political turmoil, leading to restricted rights both online and offline. Following the success of the Internet Freedom Summit held in the country in 2016, Metamorphosis Foundation has been working to create awareness and understanding of digital rights and freedoms among civil society organisations, journalists, the legal community, law enforcement and youth, primarily through the delivery of training workshops and organisation of multi-stakeholder public events. The organisation is additionally performing ongoing assessment of the state of internet freedom in Macedonia through monitoring and reporting on court cases related to data, privacy and use of new technologies.

Lebanon-based organisation Social Media Exchange (SMEX) launched the #IstiqlalRaqmi (#DigitalIndependence) campaign in 2018 to build public awareness and support for digital rights in a country where widespread government surveillance and censorship are the norm. The project involves a series of public events and workshops designed to foster understanding of the importance of online freedoms among the Lebanese public, as well as specific capacity-building and engagement work with women, the LGBTIQ community and youth.

In light of an alarming and violent crackdown on freedom of expression in Bangladesh in recent years, VOICE is undertaking a review of legislation, regulations and policies related to internet and social media use. With at least 15 local human rights defenders and activists killed in the country between 2013 and 2017 and government censorship of platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, the project is particularly timely. This initiative will focus particularly on the loosely worded Information and Communication Technology Act of 2006, which has been used aggressively by law enforcement to criminalise free speech. The organisation hopes to develop policy recommendations and build online activists’ capacity to avoid internet censorship and maintain personal safety.

Digital rights in Africa

The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms gained new momentum in 2018 as the programme’s Secretariat and Coalition expanded the scope of their work through a new funded initiative, “Securing human rights online in Africa through a strong and active ‘African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms’ network”.

Originally launched in 2014, the Declaration is a Pan-African initiative that promotes a rights-based approach to internet policy in the region. The Declaration itself provides a holistic articulation of how digital policy frameworks can work to protect and enable human rights, outlining 13 key principles to guide internet development, including openness, accessibility, freedom of expression and right to information. To facilitate the coordination and encourage implementation of this policy framework, a Secretariat and Coalition of 23 organisations were established.

The current initiative aims to empower this Secretariat and Coalition, in partnership with civil society, media and human rights defenders, to bring human rights to the forefront in digital policy processes across the region and, specifically, to promote the Declaration’s uptake in national jurisdictions. In addition, the project is intended to provide Coalition members and partners with resources to respond effectively to rights violations in their country contexts and to take action toward creating digital policy mechanisms that centre human rights. The Secretariat and Coalition will achieve these objectives through events and activities as well as a small grants programme for country-based partners.

The annual Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) was held in Accra, Ghana on 27-28 September 2018. Jointly organised by APC member Collaboration for International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Media Foundation for West Africa, the event brought together diverse groups and sectors, including human rights defenders, government officials, journalists, developers, business representatives and more, to discuss the advancement of internet freedom on the continent. Representatives from APC and member organisations, including the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNet) and Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), spoke at the event.

During the forum, CIPESA launched its fifth annual report on the State of Internet Freedom in Africa, with a focus on privacy and data protection in the region. The report synthesises research on 13 African countries, highlighting a worrying trend toward greater digital surveillance by African states, a lack of comprehensive privacy laws and low levels of public awareness around data protection.

Rights in 2019

So far in 2019, APC and its network have continued to build momentum around protecting and promoting digital rights in numerous ways – from policy advocacy to panels to new projects.

On 31 January 2019, APC’s Gayatri Khandhadai, Juan Carlos Lara of APC member Derechos Digitales and Jessica Dheere of APC member Social Media Exchange (SMEX), joined a panel on “Cyberlaw and human rights: Intersections in the global South” held at Harvard Law School. The talk explored the development of internet governance and cyberlaw in the global South and the challenges of advocating for rights-based policy and preserving the core values of the internet, particularly under repressive regimes.

The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms Secretariat and members of the Coalition met recently in Entebbe, Uganda to start putting together a 36-month strategic plan to build a more rights-based online environment in the region. This plan will be used to guide the above-mentioned project, an initiative designed to help the civil society sector respond to rights violations and advocate for rights-based policy. The Secretariat held its next consultative meeting in Lagos, Nigeria on 23 April before the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum.

APC continued to advocate for stronger resolutions around digital issues at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council, which took place from 25 February to 22 March. Over the course of the four-week session, APC highlighted the need for gender-responsive approaches to defending data privacy in a digital age, pushed for greater protection and promotion of diversity of religion and belief online and offline, and sought to increase awareness of the “digital occupation” in Palestine.

APC has just launched a three-year project, in partnership with APC members Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, aimed at protecting and promoting respect for freedom of religion and expression online in South and Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan. The initiative, titled “Challenging hate narratives and violations of freedom of religion and expression online in Asia”, comes at a time of growing right-wing populism and increased incidents of violence related to religious expression and diversity across the region. The project aims to increase the availability of information about trends, opportunities and challenges pertaining to freedom of religion and expression in the region, raise awareness about the violation of these rights among target groups across the five countries, build the civil society sector’s capacity to counter online hate speech related to beliefs and religion, establish and strengthen networks of individuals and organisations to leverage opportunities for policy advocacy, and, finally, encourage the creation of artistic and critical content that is “secular, diverse, inclusive and rights-respecting on issues related to religion.”

Finally, APC is set to launch a small exploratory project titled “Putting cybersecurity on the rights track” with the support of Mozilla. The project aims to help APC develop a research and advocacy strategy which ensures that cybersecurity, policy and norms are influenced by civil society and progressive techie voices and consistently integrate a rights-based approach. APC’s basic assumption is that human rights and cybersecurity do not need to be “balanced” or set off against one another. They not only can co-exist, but they have to co-exist if security is to be sustainable and user-centred, and a rights-based approach, focused on the security of users, their data and their communications, is the primary enabler for greater overall cybersecurity.

At a time when civic space is shrinking and freedom of expression is at risk due to growing online surveillance by corporations and governments and a lack of robust rights-based digital policy, APC and its community continue to fight for an open, accessible internet that enshrines and enables the exercise of human rights for all. Stay tuned to see how our work around rights progresses in the coming months, and look out for our upcoming piece on how APC strived to create a more feminist internet in 2018.


Next in the mini-series: The APC community’s work on a feminist internet in 2018.


Read also:

The APC community’s work on access in 2018: Pushing for people-centred communications networks

Making a feminist internet with the APC community in 2018: Raising awareness, strengthening networks and building capacity through workshops, research and advocacy