Human rights online and ICT4D – Two sides of the same coin

By Alexandra Groome and Shawna Finnegan

On 10 December, 2013, the Association for Progressive Communications and the Web We Want campaign hosted a workshop at the sixth annual Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for Development conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

Until recently, advocates for freedom on the internet have tended to operate in relative isolation from practitioners of ICT for Development. The workshop, entitled “ICT4D and Online Freedoms: Competing Paradigms or Converging Agendas?” featured a dozen participants from various disciplines and corners of the world who critically examined recent trends that suggest arguments and modalities for convergence, and looked at practical ways in which practitioners in both fields can support one another.

Privacy and open data were the hot topic of the workshop. There is an assumption in the ICTD community that more data is better. However, participants agreed that we must be weary of how data is collected and the potential inaccuracies. Some participants from the digital rights (internet rights) community also cautioned of big business and data thieves taking advantage of and abusing open data.

Some argued that the primary struggle is still for human rights online. A participant noted “empowerment is not just about the technology, it’s also what accompanies it.”

Right to information is a socioeconomic right, and thus poses duty on the State to ensure its realisation. One participant noted that if information is seen as a right, internet access should be nearly free. However, right to information is meaningless unless it is linked to peoples needs and concerns. Mukelani Dimba (Open Democracy Advice Centre) pointed out that “great lessons can be learned from freedom of information on the internet and open data. We need to be able to answer the question, what’s in it for me? Very few South Africans were interested in this until the government introduced the Secrecy Bill.” The Right2Know campaign has played a role in raising awareness in South Africa, including lobbying mobile operators to provide a certain number of free calls or for certain numbers to be free to call.

Steve Song (Village Telco) suggested that a colour coding system might be applied to open government data. For example, green for datasets that governments should make available, while other types of data could be coded yellow or red depending on th extent to which privacy issues were implicated. Song elaborated on this idea by quoting Sunil Abraham, of the Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society: “the right to privacy protection [should be] inversely proportional to power and conversely the requirement for transparency [should be] directly proportional to power”

International trade agreements that affect national and local policies, such as the TPP which raises standards for copyright, are “closing doors to the web we want, to internet rights frameworks and ways that we think about privacy and access to information going into the future,” said Claudio Ruiz (Derechos Digitales).

Rapid changes in policies are affecting the internet and there is a need for greater synergy amongst stakeholders. Early warning signals are common in many other fields. What signs would we look for in measuring internet freedom? There is need for an early warning signal system where we can track if the web is losing its authenticity as a free and open space. This is certainly a concern for both the ICT and the digital rights communities.

So how can the ICTD and digital rights communities converge and collaborate? Nnenna Nwakanma (Web Foundation) suggests imaging, visualisation of data in way can be understood beyond language. Simplifying big data in a way that every day people can use to its full potential.

The workshop also served as an opportunity to discuss to the “Web We Want”, which is a campaign bringing together civil society organizations from around the world to promote the vision of an open, universal web. “If we want to talk about the web we want we have to talk about the world we want,” said a participant. Steve Song elaborated, “the web I want is more about people than data.” What is the web you want?

More on the ICT4D conference: Shifting cultures, ICTD2013 deconstructs development with choice and play