Connect Your Rights! New and upcoming challenges

By Joy Liddicoat
Publisher:     26 July 2012

2012 is barely halfway over but already it seems as if the number of internet rights violations have already surpassed those recorded in 2011. This post outlines some of the emerging trends some of our APC members and networks are seeing, how we make the connection between our online and offline freedoms and the strategies some are using to combat threats and take positive action.

While many reacted with surprise and shock when governments in North Africa and the Middle East shut down the internet and mobile phone networks in early 2011, in fact numerous such shut downs had happened before. Along with censorship and surveillance, interference with internet freedoms is becoming more frequent. Examples include censorship of online content; criminalisation of online expression; blocking, control and manipulation of internet content; interference with privacy and data protection; unlawful surveillance, and restrictions or limitations on internet access. APC works with groups that experience these threats on a regular basis.

A significant development in 2012 has been the clear emergence of repressive measures and overt attempts to interfere with free and democratic participation by more liberal regimes. In April, the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation seized the email server of one of the oldest and most progressive internet service providers , cutting off email access to hundreds of civil society groups and sending a chilling message to human rights defenders, corporate whistle-blowers and democracy activists who need the cover of anonymity to operate securely and speak out against human rights violations. In the United Kingdom proposals to enable law enforcement to eavesdrop on emails have been strongly resisted, but may yet go ahead . Women’s human rights defenders also face threats. In a recent raid on an Ugandan sex workers’ organisation police officers seized computers and demanded employees’ passwords .

From the use of social media to highlight corruption or lack of accurate media reporting in China, to prisoners in Argentina using the internet to highlight inhumane prison conditions and violations of inmates’ human rights. Mobilising for a free media in Tanzania to combat media and political suppression following the Mbagala bombings or documenting torture and reporting human rights violations in West Papua, Indonesia.

Democracy activists and human rights defenders we work with have a single, simple message: we must all connect our rights by linking online and offline human rights advocacy strategies.

Since 2011 APC has been working with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) with a simple strategy: hold governments accountable by bringing the voices of those who advocate on internet related human rights issues (particularly women’s human rights defenders) into this global advocacy space. The most surprising part of this work has been the absence of internet freedom advocacy within the UN HRC, despite growing awareness about internet rights issues.

It is hard to believe that only in 2011 were issues of the internet and freedom of expression brought before the United Nations Human Rights Council for the first time. 2011 was also the first year that national human rights institutions at the United Nations noted the importance of the internet to their role on promoting and protecting human rights. The newly mandated Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association, issued a questionnaire in late 2011 on the current state of freedom of association. Again for the first time, human rights defenders were able to detail the links between the internet, democracy and freedom of association.

In 2012, again for the first time, the UN HRC convened an expert panel on freedom of expression and the internet, partly in response to the lack of thematic examination of internet related human rights issues. The panel provided a critical nexus between not only human rights mechanisms, but also other bodies (both within and outside the United Nations) dealing with internet governance and critical internet resources.

While these steps are significant and follow up is important, it remains vital that more groups working on human rights take up internet issues. Action to resist the growing threats to internet freedoms is needed but to be effective we must work together. Participation and leadership from developing countries is vital and is growing and can be seen, for example, in the growing innovative use of the internet and ICTs by grassroots activists to campaign for their rights and freedoms. Governments, too, need to connect the rights of their citizens.

Civil society efforts to demand this must be strengthened. This month APC members from Ecuador, Brazil, India, South Africa and the Philippines will be participating in the Universal Periodic reviews of their countries. Local human rights defenders and women’s human rights defenders will meet in Geneva to call on governments to take specific action on internet rights issues.

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This article was originally writen for, and it was published in spanish .

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