Rights: What did we achieve from 2016 to 2019?

29 September 2020

From 2016 to 2019, we worked for human rights norms and standards to integrate gender and development, and to be respected and promoted in internet and ICT policy, governance, development and practice. How far did we get? Check it out!

Advocated for protocols and resolutions that reinforced the exercise of human rights online
Our consistent policy advocacy on gender-based violence resulted in the first-ever UN resolution on preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in digital contexts.

2018 was a big year for APC and its members at the Human Rights Council (HRC) and other high-level meetings. During its 38th session, the HRC adopted “Accelerating efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls: preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in digital contexts”, a resolution that recognises online gender-based violence as a violation of human rights and recommends the use of international human rights instruments to ensure that any response does not further limit the rights of women.

The resolution followed a decade of campaigning by APC that highlighted the impact of online gender-based violence on women’s rights.

Gender-based violence was taken up in HRC and Special Rapporteur statements in 2016. In 2017 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women adopted General Recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women. This updated General Recommendation No. 19, which included a reference to contemporary forms of violence against women occurring on the internet and in digital spaces. In 2018, a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the elimination of all forms of violence against women specifically addressed online gender-based violence as a human rights challenge. This was a key step towards the watershed UN resolution at the HRC's 38th session. You can read APC's submission to the Special Rapporteur that informed her report here.

In 2017 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report on ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective cited APC’s recommendations aimed at advancing women’s rights online.

In 2018 APC influenced the language and priority of issues in the updated HRC resolution on “The promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet” which strengthened the protection of human rights online.

The resolution, which is updated every two years, was first adopted in 2012 following a concerted advocacy drive by APC. In 2018 the updated resolution incorporated language and key priorities put forward by APC and our partners, including its emphasis on access, on ending internet shutdowns, on encryption, private sector responsibility, data protection and the gender digital divide.

APC helped shape UN guideline recommendations for online content regulation.

Also in 2018, a report on content regulation in the digital age by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, was presented during the 38th session of the HRC. It echoed APC’s priorities, recommending that platforms model their content guidelines after international human rights standards. The report examines the obligations and responsibilities of both states and companies. APC and Access Now contributed to the Special Rapporteur’s report through in-person and online consultations, as well as written inputs, which are available here and here. Our response to the report can be read here.

The UN recognised new threats to privacy in 2018, incorporating contributions from APC and our partners. The UN General Assembly resolution on “The right to privacy in the digital age” highlights privacy as a gendered issue, and demands an end to unlawful government-led surveillance. It 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 and other personal data.

Contributed to international standards and frameworks
APC helped to shape international cybersecurity standards.

APC believes that a rights-based approach to cybersecurity norms is central to an open and secure internet. APC participated in the development of 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 2018 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 included a strong human rights focus and recognised the importance of community networks, the gender access gap, and the protection of online privacy as important emerging topics of relevance to implementing World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) goals.

The 2018 Paris Call was the culmination of over four years of advocacy work on cybersecurity. In 2016, at the sixth annual Freedom Online Conference (FOC), we contributed to the development of a normative document that promotes human rights-based cybersecurity policy. This document was endorsed by 30 government member states of the FOC and dozens of civil society, private sector and academic supporters. The recommendations were the result of two years of multistakeholder dialogue among working group members who represent governments, the private sector, civil society and academia, as well as the broader community, aimed at bringing a human rights framing to ongoing debates on cybersecurity.

Throughout the four years we engaged in multiple forums on the issue of cybersecurity, including at the International Telecommunication Union.

APC also played a leading role in developing a new framework for civil society actors to assess and advocate for internet rights at the national level, which was endorsed by UNESCO in 2018.

APC coordinated the development of the Internet Universality Indicators on behalf of the Internet Indicators Consortium, a group that included ICT Development Associates, Research ICT Africa and LIRNEasia. The project involved multiple regional and global consultations, as well as pre-testing and piloting the indicators over an 18-month period. Several APC members contributed to the development of the indicators during the consultation process. The framework is intended to enable civil society actors to assess and advocate for the development of the internet at a national level that adheres to UNESCO’s ROAM principles (Rights, Openness, Access and Multistakeholder). The project's final report was approved by the International Programme for Development of Communication Council during its 31st session.

Our dedicated work on securing internet rights in Africa resulted in a landmark resolution by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in 2018.

The resolution, on the Right to Freedom of Information and Expression on the Internet in Africa, recognises the role of the internet in advancing human and peoples' rights on the continent. It specifically acknowledges the value of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms as a document that “elaborates on the principles which are necessary to uphold human and people’s rights on the Internet, and to cultivate an Internet environment that can best meet Africa’s social and economic development needs and goals.” The African Declaration Coalition, of which APC was a founding member, had set passing this resolution as a goal, and this achievement was indicative of the influence of the Coalition and Declaration in a short period of time.

Held governments accountable

Working with APC members and partners, we held national governments accountable using HRC reporting mechanisms.

APC partnered in joint submissions to the HRC's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process as well as to the committees for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, for countries such as Uganda, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Lebanon, South Korea and South Africa.

In 2016 our work with APC members Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) and Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) in Uganda's UPR review resulted in the government accepting a recommendation to prevent the obstruction of the media and the internet during election periods. In 2018, together with the Center for Social Activism we raised human rights issues and violations in our joint submission to the UPR review for Bangladesh, including the murder 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. Following Cameroon’s UPR process in the same year, the government accepted several recommendations that reflected points raised in a joint submission by APC and our partners related to the rights to peaceful assembly, association and expression online, and unlawful restrictions on internet and mobile service provision.

In 2017 APC also supported partners in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malaysia, Mexico and Pakistan in submitting country reports to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women's thematic report on online gender-based violence.

In 2019, APC joined Derechos Digitales and others in a UPR submission for Chile. The government of Chile accepted recommendations on digital rights, including the adoption of legislation to protect and promote digital rights; to evaluate surveillance and personal data collection from a human rights perspective; to review laws, policies and regulations that tackle violence against women in digital environments; and to implement policies that facilitate equal access to ICTs for women. This outcome is largely due to effective advocacy efforts led by APC member Derechos Digitales, in partnership with APC, Privacy International and IFEX.

We pressed for human rights online through numerous oral statements at the HRC.

For example, we worked with APC member 7amleh on an oral statement on the internet freedoms of Palestinians; with ARTICLE 19, IFEX and Privacy International on secure communications; with the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition on the impact of violence against women human rights defenders and women’s organisations in digital spaces; with the Sexual Rights Initiative on advancing women’s rights in the economic sphere through access and participation in ICTs; with APC members CIPESA, Derechos Digitales and WOUGNET on restrictions to freedom of expression online; and with the Centre for Independent Journalism Malaysia, EMPOWER, Justice for Sisters and Pelangi Campaign on human rights online in Malaysia and on the protection of human and cultural rights defenders.

Our Advocacy for Change through Technology in India, Malaysia and Pakistan (IMPACT) project escalated campaigns around national legislation advocating for internet rights in Asia.

IMPACT was implemented in collaboration with APC members Digital Empowerment Foundation in India and Bytes for All, Pakistan, and with EMPOWER in Malaysia.

Through this collaboration, we brought critical national and regional issues to the global level, including by convening a roundtable with human rights defenders from the region and the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and opinion, violence against women, and the right to privacy, as well in submissions and statements on the impact of religion on freedom of expression and women's rights online and the state of internet rights in India, Malaysia and Pakistan at HRC sessions.

While this work at the HRC built capacity among APC members to engage at the global level, we also increased the understanding among activists of how political, religious and sexual expression in Asia is being censored and criminalised.

Among other project outputs, in 2017 IMPACT released a regional research report on the state of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association online called “Unshackling Expression”. The research framed key trends and challenges in the region, and was presented at meetings such as the Asia-Pacific Regional IGF, RightsCon and a side event at the Human Rights Council with the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association.

Advocated for a free and open internet and freedom of expression
Our work in high-level forums consistently reinforced inclusion, transparency and respect for human rights as essential to a free and open internet.

Freedom of assembly and association online as a human right was central to our advocacy efforts in 2019. In 2019 we also participated in the Christchurch Call Leaders’ Dialogue at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York as a member of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network, where we insisted that human rights should be at the core of efforts to combat extremist and terrorist content. In the same year we led a coalition of civil society organisations against a proposed international convention on cybercrime at the UNGA that posed a threat to human rights online. Our concerns with the resolution, which was unfortunately passed, were expressed in an open letter.

In 2019, we also made several submissions to Special Rapporteurs at the HRC, including on the need for human rights standards in the surveillance technology industry, on freedom of religion, sexual rights and gender, on racial discrimination and digital technologies, and on freedom of expression and content moderation. We also made a submission to the annual report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the impact of new technologies on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of assemblies, including peaceful protests. This report builds on APC's input by stressing the importance of technology to increase transparency and accountability for violations and abuses that may occur during protests.

In 2018 APC built on its work in Asia by challenging hate narratives and violations of freedom of religion and expression online in the region.

We launched a three-year project 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, funded by the European Instrument For Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), came at a time of growing populism, authoritarianism and increased incidents of violence related to religious expression and diversity across the region. In 2019 our work focused on analysing and countering organised hate campaigns based on religion in the region, including a submission to the Special Rapporteur on religious freedom that focused on gender and sexual rights. In our input, APC highlighted the experiences of women and LGBTIQA+ persons in relation to the intersection of religion and online spaces, and included specific examples from Asia.

APC advocated against internet shutdowns in both Africa and Asia over the four-year period. An important result of our work was the recognition in 2017 of network shutdowns as a threat to freedoms online in Pakistan.

This was recognised by both the country’s high court and the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, and on freedom of assembly and association. The period saw a spate of internet shutdowns that hindered public access to information and communications, particularly throughout the African continent, where many APC members are based. APC countered this trend through project-driven advocacy and its participation in the #KeepItOn campaign, which raised public awareness about the power of internet disruptions to stifle public debate, social action and dissent, particularly during electoral periods. The campaign brought together civil society organisations, activists and citizens who pushed back against internet shutdowns, including producing statements and joint letters on keeping the internet open and secure in Ethiopia and Pakistan.

APC engaged in civil society global solidarity efforts to defend digital rights defenders

Finally, in 2019, APC also joined the solidarity committee against the persecution of security and digital rights experts, in the wake of the detention of Ola Bini in Ecuador. Bini is a software developer, cybersecurity and digital rights expert, and a Swedish national who had been living for the past six years in Ecuador on a legal permit. He has been illegitimately, arbitrarily and illegally detained as a political prisoner in the country.

Strengthened advocacy capacity of civil society organisations and networks
APC strengthened sexual rights advocacy networks over the four years, building a body of knowledge on sexual rights online through exploratory research and a survey on sexual rights.

Much of the foundation for our work on sexual rights was laid through APC's Exploratory Research on Sexuality and the Internet (EROTICS) network, which had been launched in 2008 and initially focused on research and advocacy in Brazil, India, Lebanon, South Africa and the United States.

In 2017 the “Building EROTICS Networks in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka” project built on this foundation by partnering with Point of View, who strengthened the participation of activists in India, as well as including new actors from Sri Lanka by working with Women and Media Collective and Nepal by partnering with LOOM. The project connected researchers, activists, bloggers and advocates working on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including sex workers, LGBTIQ communities, women with disabilities, and survivors of violence in these three countries.

The project built the capacity of sexual rights movements, organisations, activists and researchers in the three countries to engage politically with internet rights and resist online violence, content regulation and censorship, and to participate actively in internet policy debates. This included an EROTICS Regional Meeting in 2017 in Sri Lanka, and a Feminist Internet eXchange pop-up organised by APC and partners in Bangkok, aimed at exploring the Feminist Principles of the Internet as a politically situated framework to address sexuality, gender and technology in the Asia-Pacific region. We developed recommendations for the Asia-Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) synthesis document as a way to surface gender and sexuality in internet governance discussions in the region. We also engaged states at the HRC and in its UPR process, and raised the profile of sexual rights online at the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the global IGF.

In 2017, the project published the EROTICS South Asia exploratory research: Sex, rights and the internet report, which focused on India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The report is an important baseline study in South Asia that looks at internet-related challenges and opportunities experienced by women's, LGBTIQ and sexual rights advocates, and addresses legal frameworks, regulation, experiences and strategies to respond to challenges, as well as use of the “power” of the internet.

APC also mapped how sexual rights activists use the internet to advance their work. This was done in 2017 through the EROTICS Global Survey 2017: Sexuality, rights and internet regulations. The survey documented the risks and types of harassment the activists faced, the content regulation and censorship they had to navigate, and their responses to these threats. The first global survey was launched in 2013, and a slightly revised version of the questionnaire was applied as a follow-up exercise in 2014. The 2017 survey included in-depth interviews with activists.

We raised the profile of internet freedom in Africa by co-organising the annual Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) in 2017 and 2018.

Working with APC member Collaboration for International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Media Foundation for West Africa (for the 2018 event), we brought together diverse groups and sectors, including human rights defenders, government officials, journalists, developers and business representatives, to discuss critical issues such as privacy, access to information, free expression, non-discrimination and the free flow of information online on the continent. During the 2018 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica), 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.

Expanded and monitored internet rights advocacy
Through advocacy and research APC raised the profile of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCRs) in an internet advocacy climate that had focused primarily on civil and political rights.

In 2016, APC's “Connecting your rights” project, which was instrumental in securing the groundbreaking UN resolution on human rights online, expanded the range of rights contemplated in internet rights advocacy and research to include ESCRs. Amongst other activities, the project conducted regional research on how the internet impacted on ESCRs, advocated at the HRC, including making submissions to the Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, and explored how ESCRs could be enabled using the internet through 47 country reports focusing on the topic in the 2016 edition of Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch).

We developed tools for monitoring internet rights in Latin America, and expanded our understanding of internet freedoms in the region through in-depth country studies.

This was the result of a joint initiative with APC member organisation Derechos Digitales called Examining Internet Freedom in Latin America (EXLILA). The project produced a new module for the APC Internet Rights Are Human Rights training curriculum, focusing on Inter-American Human Rights System instruments and their application to the digital environment as well as a framework to monitor the situation of human rights online in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) based on the original APC-La Rue framework, but tailored to the region. Country reports examined the state of internet freedoms in Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Paraguay, while APC contributed to the third edition of Latin America in a Glimpse, a report published annually by Derechos Digitales that highlights internet rights challenges in the region for participants at the global IGF.

APC highlighted the threats that we need to pay attention to if we are going to build an artificial intelligence-embedded future that enables human dignity.

Our focus on emerging advocacy issues over the period included understanding the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) from a human rights, social justice and development perspective. In 2019 we gathered concrete experiences of how AI is being used in the global South in 40 country reports in an edition of GISWatch. The edition, which was published in partnership with ARTICLE 19, brought together diverse voices from across the globe and emphasised a people-centred approach to the deployment of AI technologies.

Check APC's Impact Report 2016-2019 in full here.


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