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After six years with APC, Asia policy coordinator Gayatri Khandhadai is closing a cycle and moving to other opportunities. In this interview, she takes stock of the learnings gained while coordinating policy-related initiatives and analyses the evolution of critical digital rights issues and spaces in the region.
What is your analysis on how digital rights struggles have evolved in Asia during the time that you were with APC?
Our approach has been to focus on users, focus on individual and collective rights and how we can centre that. My thinking around digital rights has significantly changed in some areas in the last 10 years. I guess I'm just growing older so maybe also a bit more cynical.
The digital rights landscape is not what it was 10 or 15 years back. The actors who looked like important allies in the fight for digital rights – their positions have changed. For instance, the social media platforms once seemed like allies in the fight against censorship, but that’s changed.
Also, earlier the perpetrators were quite clear to us. It was a fight against violence from the government. Now it's more like a three-pronged war. The governments with digital authoritarianism, the private sector which is both wilfully permitting violations on their platforms and perpetrating violations with the data they have on us. And the third side is individuals, non-state entities, who are perpetrating violations against us online, especially on vulnerable communities. What has really changed is the complexity of the challenges we are facing and therefore the expertise that is needed to push back.
Another change: surveillance has become so advanced that it’s hard for us to figure out what exactly is happening. Pushback has become a resource-intensive undertaking.
I remember you always flagging that these are the rights of the people. Have you seen any changes in individual users in terms of their awareness of digital rights?
Definitely. By now everyone has knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, been at both ends of violence. For example, I wouldn’t identify myself as a perpetrator but there have been times where I might have piled on to someone online, even if it’s on Mark Zuckerberg. I’ve also been on the receiving end of hurtful tweets. I definitely feel like there is also a greater awareness of what violations of privacy feel like.
This is actually one of the things that changed my perspective. One example: when I joined APC, I had a very hard position on real-name policy, I thought it was unacceptable. Over time I'm beginning to understand the push for it, because perpetrating violence has become so much easier when you don't have a real-name policy. The other problem is that when I'm at the receiving end I’d at least like to know who it is, even if I can’t do something about it. I don't know if I fully agree with it yet, but I certainly don't disagree with it as vehemently as I did before.
What would you identify as the most pressing digital rights issue in Asia today, that one thing that you can't believe that we’re in 2022 and we still don't have a solution for? And what can we do as APC and the APC network about it?
I’d say it's the participation of powerful people, especially those in the government, in aggression and oppression. When you have the prime minister following accounts of people who issued rape threats, when you have another prime minister who calls someone a “bitch” or a “whore” online. Or there are calls for violence by people in political parties who have a huge following. If there is one thing I could solve, I’d find a way to mitigate that, to not have AI [artificial intelligence] or algorithms that simply amplify voices based on followers. APC and its network could really challenge the business models that incentivise and monetise hate. It’s important to be ahead of the curve to push these private sector actors to change their models.
Hate speech is an area that you have worked on so much in the last few years. What is the best method to fight hate speech?
Over the years I have understood hate better and the persons spewing hate better. To address hate, it's not enough to denounce the person. I know that what I'm saying is problematic, but we need to address the hate and not necessarily just the person, we need to go into why it’s acceptable and why certain people are at the receiving end of this hate.
What I’ve really realised is that tech/social media companies’ solution to hate is really no solution. You can and should delete content that is hateful but that's only dealing with the symptoms. It is essentially a people problem, a person problem, a society problem. Technological solutions can only be interim ones, sort of.
Would you say that the technological measures taken in this regard can help raise awareness to some extent? Not that it’s the whole solution but I'm wondering if, for example, social media platforms start banning certain kinds of speech, people might perhaps wonder, “Is there something wrong with what I'm saying?” Do you think that is useful, though not enough?
Yes, I think the greatest intersection of technology and hate is in the furtherance of hate, is in the multiplication of hate, is in the participation in hate. Technology, especially social media platforms, can play a great role in also being able to build solidarity, but hate finds more allies online than counter-speech.
Going back to banning, I feel like the communication around why a piece of content is being taken down is more important. The language of harm and rights is greatly missing in how the private sector communicates with people who put out content that’s in violation of rights. If I put out a hateful message or one that perpetuates gender-based violence, even if my content does get taken down, the message I receive is that my content is in violation of the community standards. The messaging is not around how it is violent towards the community. And maybe I'm a bit naive here but I feel that not everyone is born hateful. Sometimes it’s just the society we are around where these things are normalised. A communication telling a person what was wrong with their content can carry weight. It might sound preachy, or stupid, but it shows the platform is taking a position that is pro-rights, that’s pro-user-safety, and that's a big gap.
We are sort of sliding into the terrain of the Challenge project that you were such a crucial part of. From the work you did in the five countries the project focused on – Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan – have you learned or identified any strategies that could be replicated in other regions?
Our work in the region has shown us two important strategies. One, our campaigns and discussions have brought groups together, especially groups that are not already in the [digital rights] ecosystem. That strategy is important for every region.
The second important strategy is intentional capacity building – helping people hone skills in ways that they want. Not just workshops. For Asia, especially, the digital rights movement is at different stages in different countries. Though there are opportunities for collaboration, pan-regional or cross-country collaborations have been limited. This is something that should be encouraged. The number of people who are available to help, the number of people who are able to comment on policy [and] push back, that number needs to grow.
Increasingly, human rights groups that have traditionally not focused on the internet are having to focus on the internet because a lot of their work has moved online now, because of the pandemic and other reasons. But they're also dealing with censorship and violence online. Making resources available, making time available for groups that want to learn certain parts of digital rights advocacy or technical knowledge or policy – that is very important. For the last two and a half years, we've worked with about a hundred people, through different workshops, different moments, and I think that's important – to make time for new entrants in the space.
And would you say APC’s Express Your Challenge grants contributed to this?
Yes, that's what I mean by making resources available, intentionally making sure that resources go to people who are new to the space, showing solidarity with the newer actors, building a network with them. That is a very important strategy.
Which would you say was APC’s and your greatest contribution in the promotion of human rights online in the region?
I think that there's no question that APC has pioneered a lot of the work on digital rights. Let’s look back on APC’s Internet Rights Charter which is now 15 years old. Providing that vision for digital rights, being able to bring an intersection of digital and people rights-focused approach to the discussions – that's very, very key and a continuing contribution of APC. That's still a very young document. A lot of the issues that we discussed there are still evolving and are still priorities.
Another very important contribution of APC is in being open in spirit and amplifying the voices of our members because, ultimately, the aim is moving the rights of people forward.
As far as work in Asia goes, APC is definitely recognised as an expert or as a significant resource in the region. We’ve connected different groups in the region who wouldn't have otherwise interacted as much. And we’ve been supportive of groups coming up, supportive of whatever challenges that groups, especially our members, face.
Are you satisfied with what APC has done in terms of influencing policy in the region or governance spaces?
Absolutely. We were one of the first few groups in Asia that focused on freedom of assembly online. When others were arguing about whether it was even possible to have a protest online, we were already saying it was. A lot of the work on freedom of assembly and association online, the focus on network shutdowns that the international community has brought in, working with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to bring in questions around the internet, to bring in questions around the accountability of the private sector, for the kind of hate that is perpetrated online – these are important contributions that APC did along with other groups.
Of course, there are other APC teams that work on [related] issues. For instance, with gender. The recent report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression brings attention to gender-based hate speech, saying that gender needs to be an identity marker for hate speech. Usually, when you talk about hate speech, you talk about hate based on religion or nationality or ethnicity or race. Those are the identity markers you’d use. But actually, there is gender-based hate speech, which is to hate on someone simply because they are a woman, or because they're gay, or because of their orientation, or because they don't conform to what your idea of what a person belonging to a particular gender should look like. So the recent report of the Special Rapporteur, calling for this very specifically, is a monumental achievement. APC has played a very significant role in achieving those policy developments.
You have worked in the Asia region but you also had some experience engaging with global policy and governance spaces. How do you see that interplay between the regional and the global, do you see some opportunities there? By having a strong voice and presence in global spaces or using our international position to advance the Asia situation, is there anything that you can put your finger on?
My reflection on the regional to international is that APC should [continue to] keep a regional way of working. In the last few years, I've noticed that the number of people from Asia who participate in these international processes has not been as high as it used to be before. For example, at the UN Human Rights Council, I have seen a steady decline in the number of Asians. And that could be because of fear of backlash from states or because it's too cumbersome. What happens then is that international organisations are primarily doing all the mediating.
It's very important that APC continues to have a regional focus, we need to make sure that the voice we bring to international spaces is Asian, is African, is a global South voice. My take is that it is probably the responsibility of organisations like APC and others to help create those opportunities and make sure that we share the space with actors from the region.