* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Each day in Cairo, Noha Atef, adds entries to her blog Torture in Egypt, in which she documents human rights abuses by the police. She adds photos and tags individual officers who are alleged torturers by name. Atef’s blog stands as a database of evidence, used in court cases to convict authorities. She lives with her family. In their household, her parents routinely receive anonymous phone calls containing threats to rape and kill her if she does not stop blogging.
Globally, surveillance, detainment and arrest of bloggers who denounce abuses by authoritarian regimes and conservative forces are increasingly commonplace.
Several decades ago, threats against women human rights defenders (WHRDs) such as Atef would have been mitigated – and perhaps diffused - by the means of available technology. At the time, women took to the streets, published their evidence and grievances in newspapers and magazines and relied on now-termed “old-fashioned” means of communications such as the telephone, radio, facsimile and letters sent through the post to share information and organize support.
Today, rights advocates use both “old-fashioned” and newer means in their work.
Unique possibilities and new threats arise with the advent and rapidly-evolving, creative uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as emails and text messages and tools such as blogs, Facebook pages, twitter feeds, crowd-sourced mapping and YouTube.
Mainstream media has been quick and copious in covering the possibilities – as seen in the buzz about mobile phone cameras and tweets used for organizing during the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, it has devoted less airtime to serious consequences associated with the threat, including the pressing need for internet and communications rights.
Undoubtedly, ICTs have become a means to exercise freedom of expression. Social networking sites, blogs and Youtube provide activists with cost-effective tools to document abuses, raise awareness and mobilize support. Online petitions help build pressure on governments, corporations and international bodies. Mobile phones send out urgent actions, collect donations and transfer money. Smart phones record evidence with photos and videos. Twitter allows for real-time broadcasting and rapidly facilitates convenings.
Simultaneously, though, the use of these technologies – in the absence of rights – creates new openings for authorities to harm those resisting.
Attempts by authorities to constrain WHRDs and other rights’ advocates take a range of forms, including interference with Internet services, use of legal restrictions, email surveillance and monitoring, computer confiscation and virus and spyware attacks as well as harassment, intimidation and reprisals.
These deliberate and routine infringements on WHRDs’ online security and privacy affect advocates’ rights to freedom of expression and association, amongst others.
Jennifer Radloff, who works for the Association for Progressive Communications’ Women's Networking Support Programme, explains, “When we get online, we do so with all of our human rights intact. But these rights are often ignored or threatened and transgressed by repressive states and conservative groups. The tools that we as advocates use to communicate, share and create change are the same tools that the state and anti-progressive forces can use to track, trace and target us.”
Moreover, Radloff points out, “ICT tools are not neutral and were created for purposes and by people with specific agendas that are not necessarily progressive.”
The extent of these violations varies by region. According to Radloff, “In some countries filters are loaded onto public access computers which means content which could be life-saving and life-changing is being blocked and filtered. This includes content on safe sex, shelters for abused women and access to safe abortion. Also, impersonation through hacking into email or Facebook accounts means that issues of maintaining online and offline trust are breached.”
These days, laws governing the Internet are negotiated at various levels and in different forums. Increasingly, internet and communications rights are being discussed the United Nations and the Human Rights Commission. Also, each year the multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meets to discuss how the internet is governed.
Women’s rights advocates have made policy-setting inroads into many spaces that affect women’s lives – governments, schools, religious organizations, health care systems and economies. But what about the virtual spaces associated with ICTs?
As Margarita Salas who works on ICT issues with women’s movements in Latin America and the Caribbean explains, “the issues that are successfully positioned during these meetings are later translated into accepted practices, policies and regulations. Yet, in many of women’s movements, internet governance issues are deemed less urgent or there's no clear understanding of how much the internet is a key resource.”
Salas warns, “if we don’t show up to these debates, technology enterprises and governments will dictate what we can do with ICTs. It is critical for us to be there.”
Masum Momaya and Susan Tolmay contributed to writing and research.