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EngageMedia at Global Voices Summit 2019: Challenging Digital Authoritarianism

On June 2, 2019, journalists, bloggers, digital activists, and researchers from the Asia-Pacific gathered together in Taipei, Taiwan for the Global Voices Asia-Pacific Citizen Media Summit to share experiences, gain knowledge, and form new collaborations. Global Voices is an international and multilingual community of bloggers, journalists, translators, academics, and human rights activists and a long time ally of EngageMedia.

It was a sunny day, and the morning looked promising as we walked into the venue, the auditorium of NTU Institute of Applied Mechanics in Taipei. The summit was equipped with simultaneous translation and live streaming for the wider audience. We live-tweeted the proceedings and the hashtag #GVAPSummit2019 even trended for a while.

The summit addressed issues like internet rights and activism, digital security and privacy, digital inclusion and development, all across two main themes: “The rise and challenges of digital authoritarianism in the Asia Pacific” and “Citizens’ response to digital authoritarianism.”

In his keynote speech, Prof. Shih-Hung Lo, the professor of National Chung Cheng University (Taiwan), Department of Communication, presented examples of digital authoritarianism in China.

In the afternoon plenary session, Andrew Lowenthal, Executive Director of EngageMedia, spoke about the citizen responses to digital authoritarianism in the Asia-Pacific.

He introduced to the audience what we do and why we do it. This was an opportunity to explain why we believe that video and online technologies have great potential for advocacy, especially in countering the challenges posed by the authoritarian regimes. He also explained that open source software can be used not only for privacy and security but also as an effective social change tool.

“Will the Internet change China or will China change the Internet?” -Prof. Shih-Hung Lo

Most crucially, he warned about the invasiveness of corporate social media in our day-to-day lives and challenged the audience with some thought privative statements.

He then shared examples of how EngageMedia walks the talk by internally using open source and secure alternatives to corporate technologies. These include using Mattermost instead of Slack, Nextcloud instead of Dropbox, PGP-secured Thunderbird instead of Outlook, Redmine instead of Sharepoint, Signal instead of Messenger, and so on.

Another provocation he put forward to spark conversation was the following:

“Using Facebook to promote digital rights is like eating McDonald’s to promote vegetarianism.” -Andrew Lowenthal

An audience member from the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance (Taiwan) responded: “Now, in Taiwan, we are anxious about our presidential election next year. We are worried about becoming the next Hong Kong!”

Others agreed that many so-called liberal democracies are resorting to options like internet shutdowns and censorship. Authoritarian regimes are using the popular discourse of “cybersecurity” and “fake news” to strengthen their control over the internet.

Lowenthal emphasised the need to create networks of like-minded activists, video makers, journalists, and artists.

But how do we do move forward using technologies that are being used to repress us at the same time? “We at EngageMedia continue using and exploring non-corporate platforms and revisiting old-school approaches like RSS, newsletters, and communicating offline. We believe these efforts contribute to keeping spaces open for critical thinking, dissent, and discussion.”

So what is the future of digital rights in Southeast Asia? “A lot depends on the public awareness of digital rights & cybersecurity,” a panelist responded.