Annually since 2010, stakeholders coming from different countries in the Asia Pacific (AP) meet to discuss pertinent issues on internet governance. This forum where different stakeholders converge to ‘discuss, exchange, and collaborate’ is called the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF), a regional Internet Governance Forum (IGF) initiative that hopes to build awareness and participation around the AP region on Internet governance issues, as well as ‘to foster multi-lateral, multi-stakeholder discussion on the future of the internet in Asia.’
The theme of this year’s APrIGF is ‘Internet to Equinet – An Equitable Internet for the Next Billion’. The forum attempted to stress how the region should respond to the accelerating demand for internet, however, it seemed like generally, it fell short of underscoring how Human Rights should figure in with this accelerating demand. Despite its attempt at being an inclusive and multi-stakeholder, it could also be observed that most plenary sessions lack women and civil society speakers.
During the APrIGF in Greater Noida, India on August 4-6, 2014, the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), a member of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in the Philippines, organized a workshop to surface different country-level experiences to advance Human Rights in cyberspace. FMA’s workshop ‘Towards a Dynamic and Active Asia Pacific Internet Governance rights-based space with gender perspective’ gathered seven on-site and remote panel speakers from India, Philippines, Pakistan, Fiji, and Thailand.
The workshop commenced with Lisa Garcia, FMA’s Gender and ICT Coordinator, explaining the rationale of the workshop. She mentioned that the motivation of the workshop is the seeming ‘disconnect’ between the global internet governance discourse and regional and national discussion. “Although there has been progress in discussion around human rights in cyberspace globally, local legislations continue to advocate restrictions in cyber freedoms,” she added.
Anja Kovacs of Internet Democracy Project India came next and gave a general description of women’s participation in internet governance spaces. She said that while many women participate in these spaces, they remain on the side-lines. She believed that there is still limited gender space, as well as social justice space so there should be stronger reflection of these in the region.
Salanieta Tamanikaiwaimaro, Director of Pacifica Nexus from Fiji, one of the remote speakers, cited the existing digital and gender divide in terms of women’s access to ICT, as well as gender indicators in ICT for the Pacific. She highlighted the importance of an equitable ICT in the region that has a gender lens in terms of policies, framework and measures.
Nica Dumlao, Internet Rights Coordinator of FMA, shared during the workshop how activists in the Philippines struggled for the repeal of the anti-cybercrime law and succeeded in having the Supreme Court declare a temporary restriction order on it. Nica also shared that anti-cybercrime laws, as experienced in the Philippines, only focus on criminalization and stifle human rights. She said that the struggle goes on in the Philippines and in most countries in the region to uphold and protect human rights in cyberspace to counter passage of such restrictive ICT laws.
Two remote speakers and human rights activists from Thailand and Pakistan also joined the panel, Arthit Suriyawongkul of Thai Netizen Network and Shahzad Ahmad of Bytes for All Pakistan. Art talked about the changes in the information and communications policy in Thailand after the coup. He talked about censorship of speech, blocking of social media sites and surveillance in their country by the government. He also added that the ICT department was even placed under the police. Art concluded that if the national government couldn’t function, regional cooperation can play a role in exposing repressive regimes and help promote freedom.
Shahzad, Executive Director of B4A talked about the emerging trend of online violence in Pakistan, including hate speech aimed at certain groups. According to him, not much is being done in terms of strategies and redress, with the government not providing enough protection. He cited their initiatives to address these challenges including awareness-raising, campaigns, and capacity-building efforts.
Naomi Fontanos, Executive Director of Gender and Development Advocates Filipinas (GANDA Filipinas), focused on (trans)gender inequality in the time of the Internet and how the Internet brings ‘power, pleasure and pain’ to rights-based work in the Philippines and around the region. She shared that many transgender in the Philippines engage in cybersex work because of poverty and are marketed online as “shemale” or “tranny” webcam performers. Naomi stressed, “The internet has to be kept free in the purest sense of the word: unburdened by corporate greed and government regulation, otherwise it will only serve to exacerbate already extant systematic inequality offline”.
Noelle de Guzman, Regional Programmes Coordinator of Internet Society Asia Pacific, was the last speaker of the workshop and shared ISOC’s project on ICT and women empowerment in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. She reiterated in her presentation that it is not enough to make women use the computer; they should be equipped with skills and tools to access entrepreneurship trainings and marketing strategies to empower themselves economically.
The workshop generally was a big success in that it was believed to be one of the most attended workshops during the APrIGF. Panellists and attendees agree that Human Rights should always be in the center of internet governance discussions. The workshop was clustered under the sub-theme ‘Internet and human rights’ and issues raised in the workshop were shared during the closing plenary of the APrIGF.