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Access to the internet is vital for an informed, cooperative and people-centred global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It plays a crucial role in enabling a flow of information and sustaining communities in times of crisis, and is integral to any disaster management plan. While devastating structural inequalities across the world are being laid bare by the virus, a sense of community and collective resilience are acquiring new meaning and importance. The internet is part of this emerging resilience. Because of this, it needs to be protected as a public good, and human rights must be upheld online in any response to the crisis.

This position paper outlines the Association for Progressive Communications' (APC) current thinking on the pandemic. It identifies several key, interrelated issues that require attention by governments, the private sector and civil society:

  • Digital exclusion makes the vulnerable more vulnerable

  • The importance of upholding human rights online

  • A feminist lens to respond and transform

  • Reinvigorated attention to climate action and environmentally sustainable technologies

  • Deepening inclusivity and connectedness, and strengthening our movements

Summary of recommendations raised in this position paper

The following key issues need attention by governments, private sector actors and civil society in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • It is essential that governments respect human rights and that any limitations are justified and do not undermine the democratic foundations of societies. Measures adopted to respond to the crisis should be proportionate and avoid curtailing human rights unnecessarily.

  • The internet is a global public resource that should be governed as a global public good. In the context of the pandemic, the publicness of the internet and the global digital commons should be strengthened rather than eroded.

  • Governments and private sector actors should urgently develop strategies to increase internet access for digitally excluded communities, or those with limited connectivity. In the short term, data costs should be lowered, free public Wi-Fi spaces enabled, and the cost of access to devices reduced or subsidised. In the near term, plans for a rapid upscaling of community networks should be supported in policy directives.

  • For the internet to be a terrain for resilience and connection, it has to be a safe space for all. Therefore, the importance of a feminist internet cannot be overstated.

  • Donors and civil society organisations have a critical role to play in implementing strategies aimed at minimising the anxiety that emerges from the need to perform at a certain level of competence in relation to professional work and invisibilised and unpaid labour domestic work.

  • The right to privacy needs to be upheld in the implementation of any surveillance and tracking technologies and solutions in managing the pandemic. The private sector also has an obligation to ensure that the rapid uptake of their applications safeguards privacy and is free from surveillance. Measures implemented by governments that impact on privacy need to be clearly communicated to the public.

  • Freedom of expression and access to information need to be safeguarded. Internet shutdowns or other restrictions to internet access should not be considered as a response to the crisis under any circumstances. Censoring content or criminalising disinformation should be avoided, while practices of content verification should be encouraged. While the labour rights of content workers need attention, attention also needs to be given to the restrictions that automated content curation can place on accessing health information and freedom of expression.

  • We need to critically rethink our idea of sustainable development, and what can be learned from the pandemic in terms of changing our work and social behaviour. Reinvigorated information and communications technology (ICT) policy advocacy is needed to promote environmentally safe technology solutions in tackling the climate and environmental crisis.

  • How feminist, digital rights and environmental movements occupy the digital space will be a determining factor in how internet governance addresses power imbalances in the future. Meaningful inclusion and participation of all stakeholders in internet policy decision-making processes and forums remains necessary during the current crisis.

Download the position paper here.

If you want to read more: APC has compiled a collection of resources, “Supporting human rights online in times of crisis”, that can be accessed here.