Digital rights defenders share insights on the future of the internet and its governance in South Asia

In 2020, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) organised the Internet Rules: Unboxing Digital Laws in South Asia workshop together with the Centre for Internet and Society, India. Drawing on the experience from this learning journey, we are now preparing for the 2021 event and this time we will be focusing on the Southeast Asian region.

The Internet Rules workshop 2020 gathered 26 digital rights defenders from the region online. Participants from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka took a closer look at laws governing online spaces and technology, and learned how jurisprudence can be used to promote digital rights, especially for marginalised sectors of societies. The workshop had a total of 10 sessions focusing on topics that included an introduction to law and jurisprudence, introduction to information and communications technology (ICT) legal ecosystems, access, infrastructure and network shutdowns, freedom of expression, content moderation and intermediary liability. 

We shared insights on the fundamental and thematic areas of ICT laws and digital laws and were joined by resource persons who also shared their experience and knowledge.

Participants were able to hold discussions in the daily open rooms, on a group chat and a mailing list – all spaces that ensured that the exchanges could carry on beyond the allocated workshop hours. 

Ensuring equitable access for all

For Preeti Raghunath, an assistant professor on media and radio policies in India, the workshop became an avenue to dissect and analyse how policy making affects access to technology in her country. “Policy making for technology, in a big way and a lot of times, is not accompanied by equivalent understanding of the contextual attributes of how these technologies operate,” Raghunath said. 

The workshop discussed how technology is not a catch-all solution, and that underlying issues of logistics and service delivery have to be resolved first. Raghunath was also interested to see how the use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) in smart cities will interface with the people’s voice, cultural identity and labour. With the use of technological solutions such as AI, it is important to ensure that no one is getting left behind.

“It’s often the elite who have access to these technologies,” she said. “A lot of times, they are the ones who accrue the benefit, and a shift has to happen to ensure equal access for everyone,” she said. 

In the same vein, Jhulindra Monger, an IT officer from Bhutan, said that participating in the workshop made him realise that his country has a lot to do to solve infrastructure and access issues. He explained that there is still more to the internet as a place to freely express one’s self and to access information, but that in Bhutan, infrastructure issues hinder most people from accessing it.

For Tariq Zaman, an associate professor based in Malaysia but originally from Pakistan, access and governance of the internet should follow a rights-based approach. To further empower people to practise and uphold their digital rights, digital literacy should be a focus too. “Communities should have more knowledge and their capacities should be built to understand how the internet works,” Zaman noted.

Breaking down technical legal concepts into applicable bits of information

“I have never attended any workshop that actually deals with digital laws,” mused Nazmul Ahasan, a journalist from Bangladesh. “Since I am a journalist, I do not have any legal background and this workshop has been enlightening to me, as I learned about the policies and looked at digital rights from a legal perspective.”

The same experience was true for Ephraim Sharadrach, a project officer at Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka. “I found sessions to be informative, especially the one about freedom of expression and the one on gender and vulnerable groups.”

Visions for digital rights in South Asia

For Rozyna Begum, an activist and researcher from Bangladesh, her mission is simple: to advocate actively against laws in her country that repress the people’s freedom of expression online. Through her work, she hopes that “more people will realise why digital rights are important.” 

“Laws and policies should be responsive to the challenges and needs of the people in promoting their rights towards uncovering their full potential and making sure that they are respected as human beings,” she noted. “People should have the ability to enrich their lives by being connected online.”

Similarly, for Snigdha Bhatta, a lawyer in Nepal, her vision in promoting digital rights in her country starts with raising awareness about how laws and policies can be used to repress people’s freedoms. 

“My aim is to generate awareness about issues surrounding how we govern the use of the internet. When someone writes on Facebook and it gets taken down, people don’t normally ask why,” she explained.

“We also have controversies surrounding data breaches and the privacy issues of contract tracing apps, but no one is talking about these,” she added.

The workshop also included a session on advocacy and communications to support participants in network building and ensuring that their work reaches more people. 

The Internet Rules: Unboxing Digital Laws in South Asia workshop was initiated as a way to provide an understanding and appreciation of the legal landscape for digital laws in South Asia. The event become a platform to create a stronger network of activists, creatives, lawyer, journalists and others as they work together towards advancing digital rights in the South Asian region. As the 2020 event showed, the workshop is a productive learning journey for participants.

The full details of the next workshop, which will be held from 20 to 24 September and will bring together digital rights defenders from Southeast Asia, will be shared soon.  


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