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Digital rights advocates, human rights defenders, and civil society organisations (CSOs) from across the Asia-Pacific and beyond convened online for Day 1 of the Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Forum on January 12, 2023, to discuss some of the region’s most pressing digital rights issue.
Opening Keynote: The Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Situation
The opening keynote provided an overview of the various challenges to digital rights in the region and the need for coalition-building to address these shared threats. The keynote, attended by over 60 participants, was also made available live in Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Khmer, and Thai.
Chat Garcia Ramilo, Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications, noted how people’s digital rights are threatened in various ways: through surveillance technology, restrictive policies on free speech, and the lack of accountability and regulation over the technology sector and non-state actors.
With the COVID-19 pandemic fueling the explosion of digitalisation, Ramilo stressed the need for advocates to be more involved in discussions regarding technology infrastructure and ensure that public interest is upheld. Amid moves to privatise such infrastructures, Ramilo said there is a need for the internet and digital technology to be seen as part of the public commons.
Helani Galpaya, Chief Executive Officer of digital policy think tank LIRNEasia, emphasised how meaningful digital access is a precondition for exercising rights in the digital space. The pandemic, she said, was the worst kind of natural experiment on the impact of internet access. She cited as an example how access to education was related to access to the internet in households in South Asia, and how gender disparities manifest in digital spaces.
Vitit Muntarbhorn KBE, Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law in Chulalongkorn University, emphasised power relations in discussions on the digital realm. While CSOs and rights defenders provide check-and-balance against abuse of power, they work in ambivalent contexts as many Asian countries have non-democratic contexts. Aside from this, there are also issues related to the monopolisation of data by Big Tech companies and their lack of accountability and regulation.
The panelists stressed the importance of collaboration and building coalitions to help shape and craft rights-respecting policies and mechanisms. They also noted the need for rights defenders to engage in broader forums beyond the usual digital rights spaces to influence meaningful change.
Breakout Session Highlights
The breakout session on extremism highlighted the tension between freedom of speech and veering towards hate speech. Speakers acknowledged the need to be mindful of how local cultural and political specificity shapes the limits of speech, but also pointed out that there is an universal notion that we need to agree on.
In the gender justice session, speakers raised the use of storytelling to highlight the narratives of marginalised groups and as a way to counter power imbalances. It is also important to foster and build solidarity for more humanised digital spaces.
On discussions on climate justice and the internet, speakers said access to data is crucial for understanding and participating in climate justice efforts so it can be turned into actionable plans, especially considering the urgency of the climate crisis and its disproportionate impact on indigenous communities.
On digital authoritarianism, speakers discussed the various instruments that authorities use to suppress democratic movements, such as disinformation campaigns, restrictive laws, and targeted digital attacks.
Expanding conversations and the participation of underrepresented voices are key in the data justice discussions, as speakers noted the many ways different communities understand the concept and the power dynamics that impact norm-setting and policymaking.
Disinformation continues to be a thorny issue in the Asia-Pacific. Speakers noted the difficulty of addressing this phenomenon amid the influence of corporate interests and Big Tech, but instead of having blanket policies in an attempt to counter disinformation, effective solutions will have to be context-specific.
EngageMedia invites changemakers to continue the discussions from these sessions over at Forum.EngageMedia.org/Discuss.
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