As an organisation that has worked at the intersections of human rights and technology for nearly three decades, APC welcomes the focus of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (FoAA) in his next report on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the digital age.
For those who have access to the internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine life without it. Meaningful use of the internet has become a necessary precondition for exercising human rights, online and offline, including the rights to FoAA. But not everyone has such access. When considering challenges and opportunities concerning FoAA in the digital age we urge the Special Rapporteur to keep in mind that meaningful access to the internet is still out of reach for around half of the world’s population. As the internet becomes more ubiquitous, less is being heard from those who are unconnected – the less wealthy and more marginalised – who are unable to exercise their rights on the same footing as those who are connected. This can create new forms of exclusion and amplify existing ones. Disparities in internet access mirror other disparities that women, in particular, face in society, be they based on location, economic power, age, gender, racial or ethnic origin, social and cultural norms, education, or other factors. Those who do not have access are doubly excluded: excluded from the “new” opportunities to exercise their rights to FoAA online, and also excluded from the “old” analogue world they used to have access to – even if imperfectly – because so many of those services and opportunities are increasingly only available online. We therefore encourage the Special Rapporteur to take an intersectional approach when considering challenges to FoAA in the digital age. Intersectionality as a framework questions and gives visibility to exclusions, powers and privileges that emerge as a result of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and other social and cultural hierarchies.
While limitations/restrictions on FoAA are relatively well defined, if not always respected, there is not yet a common understanding of protections for and permissible restrictions on FoAA online. As a result, states and internet intermediaries place arbitrary and excessive limitations on the exercise of FoAA in online spaces. Guidance from the Special Rapporteur reaffirming the right to FoAA in online spaces and defining limitations consistent with international human rights law and best practices in this regard would be immensely valuable for safeguarding FoAA in the digital age.
In addition, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the online and offline dimensions of FoAA, both because digital technologies are more integrated into people’s lives, including in how they exercise FoAA, and because states are deploying digital technologies for a range of governmental functions that impact on FoAA. For example, the use social media can enable assemblies to continue over time and across geographies to build longer-term sustainable movements. During offline assemblies, information and communications technologies (ICTs) are used by both citizens and media to monitor how authorities behave and to document abuses, and by law enforcement authorities to maintain public order, but can be abused to profile activists, infiltrate associations, and undermine movements. Data-intensive systems, like smart cities, can be used for surveillance and to control people’s movements and minimise the impact of protests, strikes and other forms of peaceful assembly. These are just a few examples of how, in today’s world, rights are often exercised along a continuum between online and offline spaces, to underline that it is critical to pay attention to how digital technologies are developed, designed and regulated in order to better understand how to safeguard FoAA in the digital world.
Image: "Hashtag" by Susanne Nilsson, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence (https://flic.kr/p/VeKQb7).