III. Historical overview

APC was established by seven founding organisations in 1990 as an international membership-based network. Members, located in the social justice, labour, human rights, environment and peace movements, worked with pioneering NGOs and activists around the world to generate content, share information, network and mobilise emerging electronic information and communication networks. During this founding period, APC had a strong and extensive network of partners in the global South who were all similarly pioneers in building these networks in their countries.

During its first decade, APC was instrumental in working with partners to build communication network infrastructures in the global South and connecting NGOs and activists with one another nationally, regionally and internationally. During the 1990s, APC worked closely with the United Nations to provide electronic communications to many UN conferences including the 1992 Earth Summit (on Environment and Development), the World Conference on Human Rights (1993), the World Summit for Social Development (1995) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995). 

The 1992 Earth Summit, and the binding commitments governments made, captured in “Agenda 21”, provided a platform for sustained and continued advocacy action by environmental activists nationally, regionally and internationally. APC supported the environmental movement, one of the first adopters of computer-mediated communications, during this time and worked closely with them in policy advocacy throughout the decade.

APC has been committed to the advancement of environmental sustainability since its inception and has incorporated an emphasis on environmental sustainability, in various ways, in its strategic plans since 2004. Even when APC has not had the resources to dedicate to working on environmental sustainability, it has remained part of APC’s overall sensibility and analysis. 

The Fourth World Conference on Women was a hugely significant process for APC. Women working at APC member organisations, already focusing on the nexus of ICTs and gender equality in their work, recognised the opportunity that the two-year preparatory process (implemented in all regions of the world) presented to build an international network of women’s organisations working together online, supported by APC’s Women’s Networking Support Programme (WNSP). The WNSP, founded in 1993, became a pioneering leader of women’s rights, gender equality and ICTs through the 1990s and 2000s and its work continues through ongoing cutting-edge leadership by the (renamed) Women’s Rights Programme (WRP) to this day. 

These early information and communication networks facilitated the widest possible access to information for participants, especially for grassroots NGOs, [5] and connected the environmental movement, development community and human rights and women’s movements worldwide.

During its second decade,  APC shifted its collective emphasis from building connectivity solutions and facilitating access to the internet to working for a vision for all people having easy and affordable access to a free and open internet to improve their lives and create a more just world. The network focused on building and strengthening communities’ strategic use of the internet, advocating for “meaningful” access and monitoring and assessing critical areas that were shaping the development and evolution of the emergent ICT networks and the internet. APC critiqued the exclusion of the majority of people in developing countries and the concentration of ownership and control of ICTs [6] and raised the need for a human rights-based approach to be applied in the use, development and evolution of the internet.

At this time, the use of the internet by NGOs and activists to challenge power and structural inequality was not going unnoticed by states and private sector interests. The first instances of online human rights violations can be traced to the late 1990s, and this was the beginning of APC’s work to defend online human rights, outlined in APC’s Internet Rights Charter, developed in 2000. [7]

APC actively adopted a human rights-based approach in its focus on people’s right to participate in decisions that affect them and their access to rights; its focus on holding governments accountable for the promotion, protection, respect and enjoyment of human rights and holding companies accountable for respecting human rights; on discrimination and equality, on empowerment, and on people knowing and claiming their rights and having the capacity to do so. APC became recognised for integrating human rights, inclusive and accountable governance and gender equality in our work on ICTs for development. 

During the 2000s, APC’s work at national, regional and global levels incorporated significant policy advocacy strategies and campaigns built around the APC Internet Rights Charter. The World Social Forum(s), the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) [8] and the subsequent Internet Governance Forum (IGF) were the primary policy processes APC engaged. APC was a critical convenor and facilitator of CSO networks during this period.

In the mid-2000s, the Women’s Rights Programme initiated the advocacy to end online gender-based violence (GBV). This work was embodied in the strategic plan of the time, in policy advocacy, through the groundbreaking Take Back the Tech campaign and embedded in APC’s evolving work to leverage the newly formed UN Human Rights Council (HRC) as a new policy space to advocate for the same recognition of human rights online as offline.

In its third decade, advocating for “internet rights” to be recognised as human rights was a central strategy of APC’s work. Policy advocacy at the HRC, the IGF, WSIS forums and other spaces drew on the research, knowledge, experience and testimonies generated through a range of projects including Internet Rights Are Human Rights, EROTICS (exploring and expanding the work of sexual rights and digital rights activists), Connect Your Rights and Take Back the Tech campaigns, Connecting Your Rights (advancing internet rights as a way to advance economic, social and cultural rights, ESCRs), IMPACT (Advocacy for Change through Technology in India, Malaysia and Pakistan), and CHALLENGE (Challenging hate narratives and violations of freedom of religion and expression online in Asia). Working with partners and allies, APC was instrumental in influencing two important HRC resolutions: the recognition that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”(first adopted in 2012) and the recognition of online GBV as a rights violation (2018). 

The work of the WRP around GBV in the 2000s, informed by a women's rights and feminist analysis, led to the development of an entirely new vision of the internet, which has been a critical pillar of APC’s current work. During the past 10 years, this work, as well as the centring of perspectives of advocates working on sexual and reproductive health and queer rights, has resulted in an intersectional approach, which is embodied in the Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPIs). [9] The FPIs upfront the political aspects of the internet and are a powerful way for actors across a wide range of interests to engage with the internet and other technologies on their own terms. 

As we move towards the end of APC’s third decade, parts of our work have in some ways gone “full circle”. To quote a current board member, “APC connected the first, APC is connecting the last.” APC’s Connecting the Unconnected initiative is grounded in the experience of community-based connectivity initiatives themselves and in APC’s track record in gender analysis and collaborative approaches to changing policy and regulation and in implementing a rights-based approach to building networks, facilitating peer support and capacity development.

As APC moves into its fourth decade, there is an urgent need to mobilise the collective power of networks and social movements to respond to the environmental crisis we are collectively contributing to and must take responsibility for, to counter corporate power, to challenge and prevent state and non-state violence and abuse, to respond to intensifying attacks on human rights and the weaponising of social media and other digital technologies, and to push back against the constant undermining of civic spaces, democratic processes and institutions. 


[6] This text is from APC’s input in 2000 to the UN’s High Level Panel on ICT for Development. This quote is included in “Involving civil society in the information society”, APC, 2003. https://www.apc.org/sites/default/files/InvolvingCivilSociety_EN.pdf
[7] It is important to understand the difference between the “human rights-based approach” and defending human rights. The human rights-based approach’s roots are in the global South (expressed in 1986 in the UN General Assembly resolution on the right to development), and in the social justice critique of individual civil and political rights that emerged towards the end of the cold war. APC’s work with human rights has always been about more than just individual rights, or digital rights.
[8] “Involving civil society in the information society”, APC, 2003, contains positions on the WSIS from APC regions and the Women’s Networking Support Programme. https://www.apc.org/sites/default/files/InvolvingCivilSociety_EN.pdf
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