ICTs and internet technology have caused profound political, social and cultural changes around the world, and continue to do so. A new ‘mobile divide’ is likely to emerge in the next three to five years since, in the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and most developing countries, the majority of mobile handsets are basic phones, with limited functionality. SMS remains a primary form of communication, but in general its use is also limited by low literacy levels. In comparison, over half of mobile phone users in developed countries are likely to have a smart-phone in the next three to five years.
Nonetheless, ICTs have the extraordinary capacity to make the voices of marginalised people heard, to make visible that which many would prefer to keep secret, and to raise and expose human rights violations, which in itself holds the potential for enhanced democratic participation. Making these issues visible is not only a way of documenting and speaking out, and of mobilising widespread support for a cause; it is also used to hold authorities accountable for their actions. Despite these capacities, the role of the internet activist is becoming increasingly complex. The revolutions in North Africa have shown how social media can be an ally in the organisation and mobilisation of people, but also how authoritarian regimes can use the internet to attempt to counter progressive social and political change. Similarly, in Thailand, the internet has been used effectively to support the conservative politics of the monarchy, as Arthit Suriyawongkul (Thai Netizen Network) observes: “What can then be called a ‘digital witch hunt’ emerged, as users began hunting down those who were against the monarchy.” There is growing discomfort with the internet as a place of refuge, with its negative implications for active engagement in civil protest.
Another trend that is occurring is that the study groups of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – the UN body that provides guidelines to states on how to regulate their communications sector – are producing new standards and definitions for surveillance and control, such as deep packet inspection (DPI), that allows the content of all internet data to be inspected. They are also adopting expansive definitions of spam (junk mail) that would make any bulk political email susceptible to prosecution as spam. These new standards and definitions are being approved in venues such as the World Telecommunications Standards Assembly (WTSA) and incorporated into the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) by the ITU’s World Congress on International Telecommunications (WCIT). Civil society has had very limited access to these venues, though with the ITU reportedly becoming more open, this may change in the future.
How civil society can address negative trends
Civil society must advocate for preserving cyberspace as an open commons for free expression, and for the free flow of information. This involves monitoring, understanding and responding to threats to internet freedoms and the public nature and value of the internet from states and corporations. Responses range from improving practice ‘at home’ (by making sure you take care of your data and that you communicate as securely and safely as possible) to active involvement in policy discussion, to solidarity with those whose human rights on the internet are being threatened.
Secure online communications
The increasing use of national security and counter-terrorism arguments by states as the reason for controlling access to the internet, and the implications of these for freedom of expression, association and democratisation, demand responses from a variety of stakeholders, including human rights defenders, policy makers, and others in civil society. Being able to trust that your internet activity will not be monitored without your knowledge, and that your right to privacy is protected, is vital to the online work of civil society, as is the right to be anonymous, to use pseudonyms, and to use encryption tools to protect information.
Online security is important to everyone, not just to states. CSOs need to assert their rights to a safe, secure internet without undue limits to free expression, association or the free flow of information. HRDs need to be aware of, and respond to increased surveillance and monitoring of their online activity by governments. They should build their individual and institutional capacity by adopting organisational policies on secure online communications, and building their skills, and those of others they work with in the media and the CSO community. They should monitor and document violations so that new trends in restrictions can be exposed and resistance strategies developed and shared.
Internet policy and regulation is being made ‘as we speak’ – participate!
Civil society participation in forums for cyberspace governance varies widely. People and issue networks play a key role by overseeing these spaces and opening doors to participation.
Civil society should participate in the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). There are IGFs at global, regional and national levels. Civil society should participate in national policy processes, including on digital migration and media regulation and freedom.
Issues that should be kept on the policy agenda include free public access to the internet for those who cannot afford access at home and who do not have it at work – for example, access in libraries or community centres. Also critical is cost, and how at national levels the communications regulatory authority is regulating mobile phone operators to ensure that what they charge for the internet is fair and cost-based.
Online networks have the opportunity to affect the dominant discourse, especially among younger generations. In Bangladesh for example, the International Crime Strategy Forum (ICSF), an online coalition advocating for the fair trial of perpetrators of war crimes, seeks to achieve its goals by instilling a sense of justice, independence and freedom among future generations.