EngageMedia is publishing transcripts of the keynote panels from the Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Forum held last January 12 and 13, 2023.
Read the transcript for the Day 2 keynote panel below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Phet Sayo is the Executive Director of EngageMedia. Prior to leading the organisation, Phet spent 15 years as a Senior Program Officer at the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in New Delhi, India, where he tackled the impacts of widespread access to mobile technologies and the internet in Asia, Africa, and Latin America
Let me first start by saying that we agree that solidarity supposes common ground. Solidarity supposes sharing. Regionally speaking, we share geographies, we share climates, we share struggles, and we share stories.
We find solidarity through shared and sharing stories. Regionally speaking, we share in making sense of crises, disasters, and threats. We share sense-making out of colonialism, conflicts, coups, and war. So from the panel discussion on data justice yesterday from Jayadeva, Tan, and Dale, we were reminded to keep positionality in mind, and in that spirit let me share that my identity is wrapped by war, flight, migration. I am a Lao Canadian diaspora. Please allow me to poke fun and be critical of our discourse by saying that I am what is currently called the digital nomad. Professionally, some might say I’ve been involved with groups of pioneers, but I’m not what you would call the digital native.
To speak about building solidarity and collaboration, please allow me to lay down some of my credentials relating to movement building for digital rights in the Asia-Pacific. I have nearly three decades of experience in the region supporting social movements for digital rights, the right to privacy, data protection, the right to meaningful connectivity, access to knowledge and culture, and alternative infrastructure and governance models.
I have contributed to promoting the open source movement in the region through the UNDP’s International Open Source network, which I helped establish. The telecentre.org movement that was connecting the least connected in the region. I supported community network alternatives, the open data movement in the Mekong subregion, access to knowledge and the Global Congress on IP, the Open Network initiative in Asia and the Cyber Stewards network and cyber policies in the region. I’m just laying this down just to tell you that what I’m going to speak next about, collaboration and solidarity, is with those experiences in mind. Before I speak about the significance of building regional solidarity and collaboration and about EngageMedia’s contribution to building solidarity, let me revisit the keynote that was spoken yesterday.
Let’s start with what Chat of APC said: that technological change is rapid and transformative in ways we barely can make sense of. The convergence of technologies, information communication technology, has transformed our lives beyond imagination. From Chat Garcia, we are asked to consider the right approach to the direct understanding of infrastructure and governance mechanisms around infrastructure.
Operationally speaking, Chat reminds us that our work is sensitive, that the safety and well-being of CSOs and human rights defenders must be highlighted. Moving on to the second speaker from yesterday – and this is a nice recap for those who missed it – for LIRNEasia’s executive director, Helani Galpaya, we learned that there is no universally accepted definition of digital rights and that’s okay. There are agreed, established covenants of economic, social, and cultural rights and human rights coded internationally in treaties. Helani suggests that framing digital rights beyond freedom of expression and censorship and surveillance is useful. She emphasises the positive access agenda, that access to the internet is access to education, is access to health, is access to public services.
Helani recommends that we rethink public services. There is the question for her of the right to the internet is itself a digital right. And our third keynote speaker yesterday, Professor Vitit, professor emeritus of the Faculty of Law at Chulalongkorn University, proposed among other things that we consider the present emergent regional context, which are characterised by power relations that are shifting based on data powers. That Asia is not particularly democratic. And thirdly, that the stakeholdership includes non-humans now, if we think of the rapid rise of datafication and AI.
So with these three keynote speakers in mind, let me just say in short, digital rights is a nascent domain still. And as I challenge my team, I challenge you not to ask what is digital rights, but rather, why is digital rights? From my professional experience, why digital rights is wrapped up in international development communities’ investment in the mass adoption of ICTs and the TCP/IP network.
Pictured here is Kofi Annan and Negroponte, and to me, this was the pinnacle. I took this picture in Tunis at the World Summit on the Information Society over 20 years ago. This predates the Internet Governance Forum. At that point, the question that the international community was considering is whether internet governance would be broader than the governance of assigned names and numbers.
It took civil society over 10 years to talk about the right to privacy, data protection, and the rights-based approach to put on the table on the Internet Governance Forum. And now we’ve come spiraling back – Chat of APC suggesting that now we actually look at the rights-based approach through the eyes of infrastructure and design and policies, which is kind of a nice circle.
I’m saying all this to suggest that with these broad strokes of what our keynote speakers say about the state of digital rights and the complexities and how nascent our domain is, that we consider what it means to collaborate. Pictured here is the launch of the open data lab in Jakarta less than 10 years ago, which is sort of closed by now.
So in talking about collaboration, what I won’t talk about are usual value propositions that we know about collaboration, which is that we can put political pressures, we can optimise our resources, we can consolidate strategies, missions, and visions, and then we can enhance our intelligence by collaborating and building solidarity.
But I’d like to sort of make you think about another dimension, which is what the keynote speakers have spoken yesterday, which is sense-making. How do we make sense of what are digital rights and what is the nature of collaboration and figuring that out? Pictured here, you’ll see in the centre is Michael Canares who spoke yesterday. Some players here, Shaddy of the Affordable Internet Access… What I’m suggesting here is investments around people in civil society and collaboration around that.
The institution that is the Open Data Lab in Jakarta is no more. But the open barometer that came out of that collaboration still exists and still influences the way we think about internet freedom. And so in the end, social investments is the way to go. Even though institutions and organisations may not last, the ideas and the people that we invest in, maintain.
Here’s another example of collaboration. Collaboration in the order that comes about good practice beyond the written policy. You’ll see in the middle is Helani, Htaike Htaike and MIDO, we have Pranesh of the Internet Society in India. These are three countries coming together to work with the parliament of Yangon to talk about judicial and legislative capacities around digital rights. So beyond the laws and advocating for that, there’s real practice and real collaboration amongst our organisations that are lens to change. This is pre coup.
Here’s another example of international collaboration in public policy consideration, which is an absolutely wonderful situation and is a love to see scenario. Pictured here is the global network of advocates hosted by Privacy International. Again, these are long-term investments on people, and institutions and collaboration.
I can talk about the advantages of collaborations of this sort, which is comparative, which means that you let a group of lawyers get together and they can talk about comparing legal dimensions and strategies. But what I want to highlight here was something that was mentioned in yesterday’s session in the gender justice session. We talked about burnout within human rights defender organisations. I was part of this network. I was also part of the Open Network Initiative and the cyber steward initiative that stemmed out of building these networks of people who were working around human rights. And the recurring theme was the solidarity around well-being, the psychological well-being of people who are human rights defenders.
So besides the synergies that we can gather by covering each other, I would suggest that we should really value the solidarity we can build around how we operate as CSOs, which cannot be underestimated. I want to suggest that collaborative sense-making is absolutely necessary if you want to take on the critical voice. We were reminded yesterday that what we have are frames – not absolute definitions – about rights. This came up in the data justice session yesterday and I found it very provocative. The challenge for us is if we as CSOs aspire to be critical about what I call cyber-archy, which is an extension of existing institutions and arrangements, but through the digital – if we want to be intentional and we want to be intentionally intersectional, then we will need to rely on partial perspectives and expertise from other fields and discipline. And this is my other point about the usefulness of our collaboration – it’s to deal with interdisciplinarity, and to deal with multidisciplinarity, and to deal with the multifacetedness of what is digital rights. No organisation alone can figure this out.
I won’t go into this, but basically saying that it makes it sort of complicated to be in the world of talking about digital rights where technological change is super rapid, and practice and policies are only catching up. So civil society, to have a critical voice, we have to be inter- and multidisciplinary.
I’m going to speed through this because I think I’m going to run out of time. But just to take note of what was discovered yesterday in terms of disciplines. If I just went through the sessions alone and think of all the things that were talked about in the different facets – we’re talking about political economies, we’re talking about cultural analysis, political theory and science, historical analysis, anthropology, communications policy, legal theory analysis, geopolitics, business operations, linguistics, social science, research, machine learning. Data science, international developments, movement building and advocacy strategies. That was all that was covered in the breakout sessions I heard yesterday. So imagine any one organisation trying to tackle one aspect of this. So solidarity and collaboration is a must for us to make sense of what we are doing.
We’ll get into what we do in digital rights and how we collaborate. But let me just say that in the final analysis, EngageMedia is a human rights organisation, and this is to respond to some of the questions yesterday around the difference between digital rights and human rights. As our keynote speakers pointed out, there are existing frameworks for economic, social, and cultural and political rights. But as our data justice speakers would remind us, the digital extends existing institutions and power relations. So we can’t be separate from the traditional struggles around human rights. In the end, we are all human rights organisations, though we go under the moniker of digital rights advocacy.
The pandemic has amplified the open conundrum in that sense – that the open new public is how education and other basic critical public services are being delivered, but at the same time, the new public is a crisis in terms of surveillance, censorship, and information disorder. This change and this complexity isn’t going away.
Again, collaboration and sense-making is the only way going forward. I want to give you an example of the collaboration we do. This is the fourth Mekong ICT camp that EngageMedia and others were involved. Collaboration, preferably from our perspective, is hands-on. I can speak about our other work, not in the digital rights sphere, but in Video for Change, for example, and our work around impact toolkits and video making. Hands-on collaboration is the way we practice. But speaking about digital rights – only through collaboration can we manage to produce and work on the things we do.
Here’s an example of work around internet shutdowns and monitoring internet freedoms in partnership with the Sinar Project. We’re able to work across the region to localise digital security tools and practices through collaboration with national-level CSOs and civic tech organisations with technical and linguistic capacities.
We rely on regional partners such as the Asia Center to do public policy analysis. Our reports on the freedom of expression in Thailand would not be possible otherwise. The other example I want to highlight is the challenging hate narrative conference that was held a couple of months ago, co-hosted with APC – it’s a prime example of the collaboration we need and the synergies across CSOs in talking and figuring things out. In this case, we were talking about the limits of speech, what constitutes as hate speech practices, and policies that are all complicated by matters that require local history and local specifics and context. What was worth noting in this incident is that the collaboration extended itself to provide feedback to UN deliberations, spearheaded by UNESCO and by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression – an example of where our collaboration leads to potential policy change.
I will give you other examples. Our work on Pandemic of Control, this is an example where we rely on a network of researchers across the region. And this highlights an example where CSOs are in a position to take risks, to be critical and to research areas that may be sensitive and is worth opening possible dialogue in future.
We rely on the expertise of others, as I mentioned, while offering our own expertise in the pool. This work on Advancing Data Justice Research and Practice is a synergy with the Alan Turing Institute. Another example of course is our Tech Tales film series. The Greater Internet Freedom program will be talked about by our next pathmaker, but let me quickly talk about what we do in terms of convening, and what we’re doing at the moment in terms of convening to build solidarity and collaboration.
First, most of you will remember or will associate EngageMedia with Coconet camps. This is a picture taken from I think was Coconet II. The first camp was in 2017. With the higher demand, we organised one in 2019. We had a plan to organise one in 2020, but of course, the pandemic occurred and the list of our partners included APC, SEAPA, the Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems International, MIDO, et cetera – just to show you that solidarity requires energy, it requires everyone sort of getting together on the same page.
I just want to tell you also that the Coconet Campfire continues from the camp, we host that virtually. And the challenge for building solidarity for our organisation is coming in towards a hybrid model, which leads us to what we’re doing at present.
Leading up to this forum we organised a number of country-based forums in Indonesia, Cambodia, Philippines, and in Thailand. This led to us forming the topics that you see here – they include open and secure technology, digital security, digital labour. All that is covered in this forum, which leads us to where we are today and our set of convenings. I just wanted to share with you that yesterday I had the privilege of being in three of the breakout rooms. Just wanted to show you that the energy, and how dynamic the conversation was yesterday, is I think evidence enough of the value of collaboration and synergies.
Finally, going forward, I’d like to invite you to strengthen the regional digital rights movement, through creativity, conversation, and celebration. We are hosting a digital rights festival. It will be happening in May, the 22nd to 26th of May of this year in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It will be co-hosted by the School of Public Policy of the Chiang Mai University on their beautiful campus. So let’s keep the dialogue going. Let’s continue the sense-making together.
We invite you to visit our website and submit your proposals for the festival. And so on behalf of the EngageMedia team, I thank you for your time and I wish you fruitful discussions on the days ahead.
Khin Ohmar is the Founder of the Progressive Voice of Myanmar, a participatory rights-based policy research and advocacy organisation rooted in civil society that maintains strong networks and relationships with grassroots organisations and community-based organisations throughout Myanmar. Khin has been a human rights practitioner and advocate since 1988, as a leader of the 8888 Uprising in Myanmar.
Thanks to all the organisers for having me with you in this very important forum, and also looking into how we can all collaborate together as Phet already mentioned.
I have learned a lot just from one session, hearing from you, so thank you for that, especially for me coming and joining you all who’ve been working on this issue for so long. For me and my organisation, we are a human rights research and advocacy organisation working with local Myanmar civil society, community-based organisations. Our mission is to amplify the voices of the people from the ground. So we do work with a lot of grassroots and community-based organisations as well, and especially, in this particular time, as you all are well aware of, the Myanmar people are about to mark the second anniversary of the unsuccessful coup attempt that the Myanmar military has launched since February 1, 2021.
After two years, it’s very clear that this illegal coup attempt by the Myanmar military has come to fail. And Myanmar, of course, is now having a very different new political landscape with the people’s revolution across the country where the very issue that we have been discussing since yesterday on the digital rights and the access to the information, internet – of course it has played, over the last two years in the People’s Revolution, an instrumental role, as Myanmar people are so determined and making all the efforts and sacrifices, especially the young generation, really to dismantle this barbaric military junta, the military.
Of course it’s true that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the state of digital rights in Myanmar, like elsewhere across the region. But in the case of Myanmar, I would say the people’s rights to freedom of information and expression – you know, when Myanmar opened up to the world in 2011, 2012, it was the moment. It was like the moment where everybody had all this enthusiasm, all this hope, and all the energy put into this quote-unquote, democratic transition, that the military actually paved the way and prepared.
But the thing is that people, especially the young generation and the civil society actors who really work on digital rights, they’ve been very focused and efficiently focusing on how to actually, you know, build this and strengthen the civil society space with people having access to their rights, their information, internet, privacy, and so they really work hard.
But then of course, you know, like all of this hard work…we thought it’s going to escalate, right? It’s going to escalate to the extent where the Myanmar transition is not easily to be returned, even though we know how fragile [it is] under the very rigid military rule for many decades.
Then there was a huge hope that this energy and this collective collaborative efforts from the civil society, including myself, my organisation, our partners – we’ve been pushing the envelope to go for the transition to go further, right? But of course, it has come to the point where you see in the last two years, that’s not the case. But I think, there were times, the opportunities that I actually thought, you know – like we could have grabbed it and we could have been better, but we also missed. It’s unfortunate, and ironically, in 2015, the civilian government came into power that was in the power-sharing arrangement with the military; of course, under the Constitution that the military drafted and adopted, you cannot have a fully civilian rule. So basically it was power-sharing, right? But then in that power sharing, when the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi came into power in 2015, it’s quite ironic for me to observe – many of us observed that the people’s right to freedom of information, expression and association and assembly [came back] to backsliding. We already started to notice that before COVID. But then we even got to see further backsliding with a lot of this misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and hate messages that’s been spearheaded by the military and their militia forces.
In the time of the military’s operation against the Rohingya community in 2017, when the military committed this genocide against the Rohingya people – that was another stage where the opening space, including the digital space in Myanmar, came back to being clamped down.
With COVID, yes, it got further worse, but especially in the last two years, coup attempt has gone further. Following their coup attempt in February in 2021, what the junta immediately did in a short time was they arbitrarily amended the Penal Code 505 – very well known in Myanmar among the ordinary people, not only the activists and rights defenders.
Penal Code 505 is what is largely used by this current illegal junta to arrest thousands and thousands of people. Not only the activists, even the ordinary people who are not even posting or writing their opinion, but even sharing the information.
So that is a huge, huge thing. And the other is the electronic transaction law that’s broadly defined, it really criminalises online speech and expression.
The other one is a draft, still a draft, but the military junta is already using and applying it in different situations. That is the cybersecurity law. If it comes into effect by the military – which they shouldn’t because they don’t have the power or mandate or authority to make any law, right? But they’re still doing it. So even though it is still a draft, authorities at different levels will be using [it]…people who are found to be using VPN can be imprisoned to three years, for example.
After two years have passed, 17,000 people have already been arrested. More than 14,000 remain behind bars in detention, facing torture and all of that. But the arrests and surveillance continue both offline and online physically. [People are stopped at] the checkpoint or anywhere, authorities will come onto the bus and ask people to show them their phones. The people have to unlock [their phones], give it to them, and the first thing they will look for is Facebook. But some people, they [know] that Facebook is dangerous to have, when they are travelling and if they are stopped and asked, they know they are in trouble. So they will not even have Facebook on their phone when they go.
But then, because they don’t have Facebook, then authorities will say, why don’t you have Facebook? Then they are actually intimidated. And it becomes like a cash extortion [scheme] by the junta, they will ask the people to give them money if there is no Facebook on their phone.
So I think these are the challenges. And people have no other option but to apply a lot of self-censorship – not writing or not sharing, but also being careful with carrying their phone whereever, even [when going] to a market at the street, they are afraid of bringing their phone, [afraid] of being stopped and asked if there are any photos of Aung San Suu Kyi or photos of the people who are the revolutionary forces, you know. Even indirect writing about their opinion or sharing of other people’s sharing that is not even explicit language in support of the people’s revolution – that can still be found to be charged under 505. So sometimes, after one or two hours of posting on Facebook, military authorities show up at the door, and then people get arrested.
So things like that are really quite challenging at the moment. Right now, the measures got so severe to the point of life-threatening to many individuals, their families and the communities, especially in the areas in Central Myanmar and ethnic regions, that’s where the military has been committing atrocity crimes where they’ve been implementing military offensives, where they will be setting their villages on fire, shooting randomly, air strikes – the air strikes have come to be life-threatening security risks for the Myanmar people, especially in the areas where the people’s resistance against this military is so strong. So that has been already a pattern: wherever the military launches such kind of military attacks, whether it’s bombings or sending their military troops into the areas, you will also see in that time these internet shutdowns, or many of the internet restrictions. Internet shutdown and military operations go hand in hand in those areas.
So it’s very obvious that these efforts are not only to have digital dictatorship, but also really to hide their crimes. So for that, we have those journalists, citizen journalists, also the human rights documentation groups, community networks who are bringing humanitarian emergency aid to the people, civilians, villagers who are fleeing from these atrocities. These people are not able to have communication with each other well, and therefore they are not able to respond or they are not able to document, right? I mean, that’s the whole purpose of the military junta trying to shut down this internet and block the information.
But I have to tell you one thing: Myanmar people are so determined that there are so many citizen journalists. It becomes a part of their mission to document atrocities and ensure that information flow is not stopped – the documentations or evidence of the crimes, the atrocity crimes that the military committed.
But the only thing which I would like to actually call for your solidarity as well is that most of the information is more in the local language. There is a gap in the Myanmar language – information and evidence are not able to be transmitted into English version to be available for the international community. We as a human rights organisation and our collaborators and partners, we try our best, but the ground is so fluid.
We are so exhausted. We don’t have enough capacity and hands. So basically, I now want to come to my final sharing with you. The people now have found the root cause of all these rights problems or the immense suffering of the Myanmar people across the country, so what they’re doing is trying to address the root cause, which is this very corrupt and barbaric, hate-mongering, military institution. However, the people are now really pushing back. As you see, after two years the military doesn’t have control over the country – I mean territorially, on the land, they don’t have full control over the country. They don’t. They have very little territorial control compared to the many other stakeholders, including the legitimate government of the country, the National Unity Government.
So basically what we need is – I would say that the solidarity that the Myanmar people need from you, from the region, from the international [community] goes to the point of supporting their revolution to dismantle this military institution so that they can build a peaceful, sustainable future for them and for their future generations. So basically for that, what we would like to see, or I would like to propose, is your support for the Myanmar citizen journalists, those who remain in the country and those who are already in exile. But I will say independent journalists need to be supported and the citizen journalists, they will need your support as well. But also the human rights communities, civil society, women organisations who are documenting these sexual violence cases.
So these groups, these forces, really need your support, not only to document, but also to really amplify the people’s voices. But [we also need] help to further strengthen the capacity of the Myanmar people’s movement in the digital area. Because I see the young generation are so smart – compared to my generation, they’re so smart. But they can be even more effective if there are more friends from the region and internationally [who] will join them. So I’m looking into your solidarity and support in the digital world. How can you help them further strengthen and utilise even more effectively for them to win their revolution?
My very last point, of course, because we’re talking about tackling the root cause, which is to end this military rule or the military impunity. And for that we really need the international governments, your government, regional governments, ASEAN governments, especially now [with] Indonesia, taking the chairmanship of the ASEAN.
But let’s see how Indonesia is going to handle this. Right? But I think these respective governments – they will need to hear from you. We would like for you to amplify the Myanmar people’s voice and advocate for your government to put pressure with concrete actions and measures against this terrorist Myanmar military by imposing targeted sanctions [and] imposing sanctions on the companies that are involved in supplying aviation fuel to the military junta; basically pressuring telecommunication companies who are in collaboration with the other international entities and actors to not to give up people’s data and apply the guiding principles of the business and human rights. [This is] so that the Myanmar people’s digital rights, privacy, are protected, or the risk is reduced even in the time when the Myanmar people are still trying to win their revolution.
So that will be my proposal and request to you all. So with that, I end here. Thank you so much.
Brittany Piovesan is the Chief of Party of Internews’ Greater Internet Freedom program, a three-year global program that works to preserve an open, interoperable, reliable and secure Internet — and by extension, protects the individuals, civil society organisations, media outlets and vulnerable groups who rely on it to realise fundamental freedoms.
Thank you everyone for the opportunity to speak today. It’s hard to speak after Phet and Khin, those are great remarks, but I’ll try my best.
So maybe to provide a little bit of context on who I am and my space here. I’m the Chief of Party for the Greater Internet Freedom Program, which we lovingly call GIF. GIF is USAID’s flagship internet freedom program and advances internet freedom in 39 countries around the world, seven of which are in Asia. We work very much through a consortium model, so kind of network-building solidarity is the core of what we do. So we bring together in this consortium international NGOs, regional partners, and those regional partners are kind of the experts on trends and threats in their region and they coordinate the activities of our country partners. And in Asia, we’re lucky to have EngageMedia as our regional partner leading this incredible work. In each of our 39 countries, we have one or multiple country partners who lead country implementation. To give a sense of scope, at last count, I believe we’d issued upwards of 130 subgrants, over 70 organisations from around the world, so we do have quite a wide network at this point. And as I’ve mentioned, network building, solidarity, collaboration is really at the core of what we do at the local, regional, and international levels.
And I’ll focus a little bit more on regional collaboration in this talk. Before going any further, I do want to note that my remarks today are informed by the work of this consortium, of these partners of ours, many of whom are on the call today. So I really want to acknowledge their work and thank them at the outset for that and letting me speak to their work.
To provide a little bit of context about why regional solidarity and collaboration is important – and I think honestly, Khin’s remarks are the best example of this – but authoritarian states overall are incredibly successful at propagating models of digital control. And we’ve seen that over the years in, you know, the spreading of website blocking, of the control and centralisation of internet infrastructure, of applying either restrictive legislation or flawed legislation to regulating things like social media, user data, that type of thing.
And I think one interesting case of how these models get propagated across regions is if we look at internet shutdowns. The first real case I think that we saw of broad-based shutdowns happened in 2011 with the Arab Spring. Mostly what we saw after that was kind of the usual suspects – your China, your Venezuela, India doing it. And then in 2016, around the time Access Now was born, we saw an explosion of shutdowns. In 2016, there were 75 that occurred in a year, and then it just kind of ratcheted up from there to 106, 198, 213. Up until last year, there were 182 internet shutdowns worldwide with 70% of those happening in your region in Asia-Pacific, and I’m sure that stat is not new to you.
And so as governments are kind of sharing these bad practices across the world and across regions, why is regional solidarity and collaboration important? For me though – I mean, we’ve all heard this from the Freedom of the Net report – internet freedom continues to decline. I draw hope from the fact that reports published in the last year by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – the most recent reports, from Freedom House on freedom of the net – indicates that collective action is what they see as one of the leading reasons for a record number of countries experiencing improvements in internet freedom, which frankly isn’t something we’ve had an opportunity as a community to talk about very much.
And we’ve seen that in improved legislation, in tech companies being held to account, including in Myanmar. And so these governments, the work that they do don’t exist in a vacuum. In addition to collective action shaping that, I think it’s also important for us to look at the kind of regional swing states that really influence decision-making across the broader region and countries in those regions.
And there’s also been a lot of positive signs there, I think, of these influential states sometimes making the right choices. We’ve seen influential decisions come out of the Indian Supreme Court on shutdowns, the economic community of West African States had two important decisions on shutdowns as well for Togo and Nigeria, and we’ve seen similar issues coming out of Brazil.
So, how do we build this work? How do we build these communities? I’m going to talk specifically about an example from GIF led by EngageMedia in this region. So the kind of first step that our community took under this project was to provide a space for organisations and advocates to be able to share their knowledge and really listen to each other. So EngageMedia created this space on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific regional Internet Governance Forum for representatives from six different countries. And it was by talking through their work and their struggles that kind of a mutual understanding and, crucially, trust was built among these different groups. And this kind of lays the groundwork for ongoing mutual collaboration.
What this collaboration looked like and what this enabled was co-learning across regions. And as I mentioned, collaboration. And we saw this in different groups, drawing learnings from each other across contexts so that they can apply them in their own.
It looked like outreach amongst partners on events or activities moving forward beyond the scope of our funding under GIF, which, as a funder, is something you definitely want to see. And it looked at increased feelings of inclusion within the internet freedom community, which ensured that newer organisations feel more confident in activities, given that they’re kind of being supported and sharing lessons with other countries in addition to creating that space for sharing.
We’ve learned that it’s important to not only create that space, but also ensure that there’s kind of follow-on next steps in concrete actions that are being taken in order to kind of build that movement going forward. And finally, we saw some kind of unexpected successes from this work, one of which is kind of intergenerational dialogue that happened with older advocates.
And as I say that, I realise that these older advocates are probably people of my own age, who are able to share their experience and learnings with younger advocates and then vice versa. And this kind of led to what we would call younger organisations becoming more active in internet freedom discussions because they realised that they brought unique perspectives to the table even though they were young. And we saw this with organisations and communities in the Maldives.
So I’ve talked about the threats most broadly, the importance of regional collaboration and collective action. But what for us is sort of on the horizon? What do we see coming up? What comes next basically?
Internet freedom issues, to no one’s surprise on this call, are becoming increasingly complex and authoritarian governments are incredibly savvy and creative at finding new ways to limit online rights. One example is China and Russia increasingly are becoming kind of present and trying to shape the discussions at standard-setting bodies.
We talked about the importance of infrastructure. Coming up, I think this is one of those cases, with their engagement at places like ITU. And so I think what this is going to require is [for] civil society to engage in these spaces as well. And that isn’t done on a one-off, kind of ad hoc basis – that really requires regional knowledge sharing, collaboration, and capacity building to really help shape this agenda.
It’s also going to require civil society to become really strategic about how we engage in places where there are kind of levers that can make a big difference. I mentioned regional courts at the outset, like ECOWAS or even national courts that have influence in the region, like in India or national standard-setting bodies that are looked to for other countries in the region.
I realise we’re running out of time, so I’m going to end on maybe a similar note that Phet did, with a call to funders, for those of us who have some influence in how this work is done. [These] collaborations take time. They take sustained and ongoing effort, and it requires not just focusing on organisations, but on individuals. And that requires consistent guaranteed funding and ongoing opportunities to meet in person, to share, and then to set regional agendas and execute them. So as we move forward, that type of support is also very much required.