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Anything but neutral: A digital rights Q&A

A few weeks ahead of their presentations at this year's MozFest, three women in the IFEX free expression network share their thoughts on privacy and security; gender, violence and technology; and what their organisations are doing to help create a safer online space for everyone.

Over the final weekend of October 2017, some of the world's smartest digital rights advocates will come together in London for the eighth MozFest, a gathering where people explore the intersection of the web with civil society, journalism, public policy, and art. Among the headlined speakers are three IFEX members: Mishi Choudhary, Legal Director of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) in India, Nighat Dad, Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in Pakistan, and Gisela Pérez de Acha, Public Policy Manager for Latin America at Derechos Digitales.

MozFest creates a perfect storm - in a good way - for people to talk about the intersection of rights, technology, and gender. Ahead of the event, I sent a few questions to Gisela, Nighat and Mishi, to find out what's at the top of each of their minds when it comes to concerns about online expression rights, advice for internet users, and how each of their organisations is working to create a safer online space.


What are you looking forward to most about MozFest? Is there one thing in particular that you hope the audience will take away from your talks?


Gisela: I am very excited about getting to know people from all over the world and learning about the cool things they are working on. Our field changes as fast as technology itself, and MozFest is definitely one of the best ways to keep up to speed on the most relevant discussions and creative answers to common problems. In the end, the internet is a global community; I would love to communicate that to my audience and be able to build new and strong bridges for future collaborations.

Nighat: MozFest is a wonderful place to learn about best practices around digital freedom from around the world. Pakistan continually stifles the digital rights of our citizens, and MozFest will be a great place to seek support from the international community so that we can fight injustice back home. I'm a staunch advocate for women's safe access to technology, so my talk will address how important it is for women to be able to access the digital realm without fear. We are all in this together, and a safer internet for everyone is only possible with the involvement of different voices across borders.

Mishi: People! It's all about people and their willingness to move over minor differences for a greater cause and MozFest seems like a place where this can happen.


What aspects of our digital/online lives would you like the 'average' internet user to be more aware of? What recommendations do you have for managing their online lives?


Gisela: My answer is: Question technology. In the era of digital capitalism and social networks, we act mostly as passive consumers of whatever content and formats are handed to us by the private companies through which we connect: Facebook, Google, Twitter, Youtube, Tinder, you name it. What we usually don't realise is that there are ideas and values behind the way these platforms are designed and conceived: they are not neutral. Think about what shows up at the top of your search results. Opaque and secret algorithms 'decide' what should be relevant to you. Look at what pops up as autocomplete suggestions when you type something like "Are women" "Are Muslims" or "Are Jews" into the Google search field. The results are often sexist, racist. There are political consequences to these results, but the platforms are not accountable. As users we can take action: demand more transparency, value our privacy, decentralise information, use different search engines, encrypt our communications through alternative chat apps like Signal, break the aesthetic rules that social media impose on us, defy the logic of 'likes' and the tyranny of clicks.

Nighat: As a vocal digital rights advocate, I tend to get a lot of hate from people with different mindsets - only because I raise my voice for their digital rights. I get rape threats, body shamed, slurred and whatnot. I'd like to believe that it doesn't affect me anymore, but that would be dishonest to the people reading this. I'd just like to tell them to speak up for what is right, and that what is right is not always easy or safe.

Mishi: The average internet user must realise the following: One, they have power - the power to demand changes to the products that the companies provide, to demand improvements. Encryption, improved security, information about data collection and sharing, transparency, have all been possible because users wanted them, and that forced the political narrative, legal regulations and product manufacturing to favour them. Two, the internet does not forget anything. Three, just because you are saying it over the internet, does not mean you can throw civility out of the window; have discussions, disagree but keep it civil - harassment drags everyone down and destroys the great promise of the net. Four, Facebook is not the internet.


What are the most urgent issues in terms of online privacy and security where you live?


Gisela: When we talk about political power, one of the main problems in Latin America is the abuse of surveillance malware. Given Latin American governments' links to authoritarianism and undemocratic institutions, the use of these tools is especially alarming. So, documenting and denouncing this practice are two crucial tasks. Last year, Derechos Digitales published a report which revealed that the vast majority of countries within the region were involved with Hacking Team, the Italian company that sells one of the most invasive spywares to governments around the world: Remote Control System or Galileo. We learned that in Ecuador and Mexico, this program was used to spy on dissidents and political opponents. More recently, R3D documented the abuse of Pegasus, another type of malware sold by an Israeli company, NSO Group, which was used against the fiercest critics of the Mexican President: a journalist that exposed a corruption scandal and her son; the lawyers that are litigating the forced disappearance of forty-three students; and high profile anti-corruption activists. Regarding privacy, one of the biggest obstacles occurs at a societal level - the common belief that privacy is not important because "one has nothing to hide." This is as ridiculous as saying that freedom of expression is not important because "one has nothing to say." At Derechos Digitales we are interested in creating more awareness about the importance of privacy, but also in creating tools so that vulnerable communities can improve their security. Right now we have a project that strenghtens Tor nodes in Latin America; we have also engaged in litigation against surveillance drones in Chile.

Nighat: In terms of privacy, data protection is our most urgent problem. The need to address this is critical exactly because of the absence of data protection legislation. Governmental and private organisations are constantly backing up citizens' data without their informed consent and without any security protocols in place. Pakistan's National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) holds the largest database of citizen information, and in the last decade it has been hacked multiple times by the NSA, GCHQ and others. DRF is actively advocating for legislation which protects citizens' data to be drafted with the involvement of all stakeholders, including civil society and the public.

Mishi: In August 2017, the Indian Supreme Court, through a unanimous decision, recognised a fundamental right of privacy for citizens of India. This opens a new era in Indian constitutional law. The court's judgment has brought India to the forefront of the world's democracies in defining the meaning of privacy in the internet age. But this is merely the beginning of the process: it leaves much to be done both in courts and in Parliament, as the central government adjusts to a new state of affairs. A Data Protection Law, a citizens' Privacy Charter, and a regulatory framework around Aadhaar - the world's largest database of biometrics - are all in the works. Our organisation is raising awareness about the importance of these issues, working with the government and other stakeholders to ensure that India upholds our newly recognised privacy right.


Some, or all of you, will have been harassed online. Can you comment on access to information, free expression, trolling etc., in relation to women's online experiences in your region? What work are you doing in this area?


Gisela: When trying to understand the relationship between gender, violence and technology, one should keep in mind that online violence is linked with offline realities. When sexism and homophobia exist in societies, they will be amplified in the online world. Women who talk about sports or politics are constantly harassed and threatened; we are expected to talk about babies, fashion, decoration or cooking. A similar thing happens with feminist or LGBTQI+ activists. Violence has a chilling effect: it makes these dissident voices self-censor, and that in turn inhibits our right to access free and diverse information. Online gendered violence is a social sanction against non-binary and non-male people who choose to step outside of what is deemed appropriate. We need to fight to keep open, equal and democratic internet platforms. At Derechos Digitales we have been providing security workshops for gender dissidents in Central America. In Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries in the region in which to be a woman, I co-produced a video to highlight the online violence that Fox Sports anchorwomen were subjected to just for doing their job.

Nighat: Women and other marginalised groups experience online spaces very differently around the globe. Their freedom of speech is greatly affected, restricting their access to information. [The harassment they face] often forces them to stop using the internet. From expressing their opinion online, to choosing to share their photos, to even choosing to cease their internet activity, women are harassed for trying to occupy online spaces as they please. This not only affects their online expression, but also their psychological well-being. DRF launched Pakistan's first Cyber Harassment Helpline in December 2016, which gives everyone the opportunity to call and report online harassment. We have legal advisors, digital security experts and counselors on board. It's a free service, non-judgmental, confidential and available seven days a week.

Mishi: Online harassment coupled with all the political parties' use of social media has not only pushed discourse to its lowest levels, it has also acted as a tool of censorship by forcing out reasonable voices. We published a report, Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship, because we have grown increasingly concerned of late by the appreciable spike in instances of online harassment across platforms. We are in the process of raising funds to start a user helpline to answer all questions that users may have when they face such harassment. Despite considerable work by the platforms, it's still not a simple process to approach them and pursue those who troll in an organised manner.


Politicians often talk about 'ending encryption' and sometimes implement control measures (such as internet shutdowns) in the name of 'national security.' How best can civil society organisations tackle these problems? How would you assess the level of internet literacy among politicians in your region?


Gisela: In Latin America, what we've seen is that governments with authoritarian tendencies are inclined to censor, and this extends to technology. It's the lack of democracy and accountability that worries me most, rather than the internet literacy of our politicians. We see the discourse of 'national security' being abused to curtail privacy rights - just like anywhere else in the world - in places like Venezuela or Ecuador. But in Mexico and Colombia, rather than 'national security', it's the rhetoric of the 'fight against the drug cartels' that has permeated the public discourse. Needless to say, it's a false dilemma. We do not need to sacrifice privacy to gain security, but rather keep a close check on governmental surveillance activities so they are not abused.

Mishi: With the Digital India and Make in India campaigns, internet literacy has increased but anything beyond the surface yields an unsophisticated belief that [the internet] must always be subject to the over-looming exception of 'national security'. Very few politicians have the patience or desire to listen to a young, technically more sophisticated crowd about any issue - their instinct is to curb all arguments that may not be in line with their traditional understanding of the State's role. We are expected to agree to the argument that government will always use the imaginary golden key for the good of society. This is a threat to the security and rights of everyone, and it must be resisted.


And finally… what's the best way to tackle 'fake news' online?


Gisela: First of all, we should stop calling it fake news. It's propaganda, it's been around forever, and it should be treated as such. From my perspective, calling it 'fake news' contributes to over-hyping a concept that masks the real issue at stake. If it weren't because of the capitalist internet model of targeted advertising that depends for its existence on violating the user's right to privacy, we would not be having a problem. The clickbait business model is the core of the problem. If we want to solve the abuse of algorithmic mechanisms for propagandistic purposes, we should change the online economic model entirely, or at least discuss it.

Nighat: Fact checking and responsible journalism. Journalists and media houses play a huge part in shaping the opinions of their audience; in the wake of all this hatred and negativity, their responsibility is magnified. And we as readers should run basic internet searches to check a news report's authenticity, referring to more reliable sources.

Mishi: Funding fact-checkers, encouraging and celebrating the tools that help us think like a scientist - teaching all of us to gather evidence, check sources, deduce, hypothesise before believing anything. Also, understanding that algorithms and technologies aren't neutral.

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