Panel identifies crucial link between online safety and social activism

By PARM APC     Buenos Aires, 21 November 2011

When ultra-Catholics and conservative groups decided to march in San Jose, Costa Rica, in favor of a referendum to veto any hint of legislation in favor of equal marriage or civil union of same-sex people, a group of activists in the LGBT movement decided to make a call to oppose this initiative.

Using social networks to express their opinion, they were gradually joined by a growing number of people and organizations that were willing to oppose what they considered a violation of the rights of the citizenry. Their goal was to demonstrate in favor of keeping the state as the guarantor of absolute respect for the rights of all people and publicly express their conviction that a majority cannot decide on the human rights of a minority.

Social networks provided an excellent platform to spontaneously self-summoned individuals and organizations to attend the public demonstration, with slogans opposing the proposal. When both groups met on the street the situation became tense and progressive groups were accused of provocation by the conservative and ultra-Catholics in the midst of great anger and shouting. But the self-summoned groups achieved their goal: to demonstrate that there was no single opinion on the subject and those who advocated respect for sexual diversity wanted their opinions to be considered when discussing new legislation regarding the rights of sexual minorities.

With the enthusiasm that led to the success of the countermarch, activists did not take into account security and privacy issues in electronic communication. Message exchanges were public throughout the process and LGBT activists’ photos were uploaded to the Internet, regardless of the risks and potential consequences.

How many times have enthusiasm and activism sidelined questions about online safety? The opportunities for participation offered by the Internet can be easily used to identify, monitor, control and harass opponents because of their political or religious and philosophical stances or even their lifestyles.

In the panel on “Social movements and data security” held on 10 November at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Costa Rica, representatives of various forums, networks and organisations discussed the issue, taking into account that every day there are more controls on the Internet pushed by governments, companies, information services and undemocratic lobby groups that seek to limit freedom of expression and citizen participation in public affairs.

Among other topics, the panel noted that data security has become a crucial issue for organisations that defend women’s rights or that address controversial issues such as sexual and reproductive health, the right to abortion or matters of violence against women. In some contexts, online activism against trafficking or forced prostitution are likely to endanger activists’ lives and safety. Many of them are at risk of being attacked or persecuted if they are identified publicly.

The APC Women’s Networking Support Programme APC WNSP) participated in the panel, presenting its training experience of women social activists and human rights defenders, including their needs for tools to strengthen secure communications in the virtual world.

With workshops in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the framework of APC’s “Connect your rights!” campaign, the APC WNSP also aims to create networks and linkages between various organizations of women’s rights defenders so they can assist and strengthen each other by sharing experiences, as well as new skills and strategies for mitigating the risks of their online activities.