Defending our rights online

    THE widespread use of the Internet and social media has done much to promote personal and political freedoms, but our most basic human rights are also at risk as governments move to curtail what we can say online and work to put every aspect of our digital lives under surveillance.

    By Chin Wong | Apr. 06, 2015 at 11:15pm

    THE widespread use of the Internet and social media has done much to promote personal and political freedoms, but our most basic human rights are also at risk as governments move to curtail what we can say online and work to put every aspect of our digital lives under surveillance.

    These were among the concerns raised at the RightCon Southeast Asia Summit last month, as 600 delegates from over 50 countries gathered in Manila to focus on protecting human rights online and fighting for an open Internet.

    In a session on Defending Internet Freedom, human rights lawyer Harry Roque talked about the dangers of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which was unsuccessfully challenged before the Supreme Court.

    Jon Ungphakorn, director of iLaw in Thailand, cited lèse majesté provisions in Thai law as a serious curtailment of free speech rights. Under these provisions, anyone who defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent can be sent to prison for three to 15 years—more serious than rape or murder. Worse, these provisions have been used to eliminate the political opposition, he said.

    Ungphakorn also cited the Thailand Computer Crimes Act of 2007, which can send a person to jail for up to five years for broadly defined offenses, and subjects service providers to the same penalties.

    “All of our draconian laws come about from periods of military dictatorship,” Ungphakorn said, noting that the Computer Crimes Act came one year after the 2006 coup.

    Under the military dictatorship established after the 2014 coup, 10 new cyber laws have been passed, including a draconian Cyber Security Law that gives the government the right to preempt what could be a security threat, Ungphakorn added.

    Under the current regime, he said, 699 people have been summoned to military camps for interrogation, 399 have been arrested and taken to military camps, 146 have been arrested in peaceful demonstrations, and 43 people have been charged under the lèse majesté law.

    Edmund Bon of the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights, said that while Malaysia has no lèse majesté laws, it does have the Multimedia and Communications Act, which is similar to the Philippines’ Cybercrime Prevention Act, as well as an old law against blasphemy that are open to abuse.

    In a separate session “Postcards from Around the World,” activists from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Nigeria and Peru talked about how the Internet and social media platforms have been used to advance human rights, but how these same tools can also be used by governments to suppress these rights.

    Activists in India are celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down problematic provisions in the IT Act that could send a person to jail for three years for simply sending a message online that could be deemed “annoying or inconvenient,” said Shagun Belwal, counsel for the Software Freedom Law Centre. Her organization also successfully challenged a provision in the law that made intermediaries liable to the same penalties.

    Abir Brahem, security incident handler at Access, recalled how the government in Tunisia had imposed massive censorship on the Internet before it was overthrown in the Arab Spring revolution four years ago.

    Now, while censorship has been lifted, the new government has created a telecommunications agency that could, under the pretext of counter-terrorism, set up a massive system of online surveillance that could be misused for political reasons, Brahem said.

    Tarek Shalaby, media specialist with The Planet, said the Internet and social media have also affected the political landscape in Egypt.

    “We were very inspired by the Tunisians. We celebrated their independence like it was ours,” Shalaby said. “And it was incredible that leading up to the revolution, the [President Hosni] Mubarak’s son, who was one of the leading figures in the national democratic party, had a press conference and someone from the audience asked what are you going to do about the young kids on Facebook and these young revolutionary movements? And then he laughed it off and the whole room was laughing for a few minutes. And then a few months later, it was those youth who supposedly brought down the regime.”

    The Mubarak government had built up the Internet infrastructure as a way of attracting international investors to Egypt, but did not see this as a threat and as a way to give voice to the people, Shalaby said.

    But soon enough, the military took over Egypt again, and this time, the authorities are more aware of how the Internet and social media can be used to advance their agenda.

    Activists can’t get access to traditional media, which are controlled by businessmen, the government or the military, but can use social media, he said.

    “We have 25 million users in Egypt on Facebook,” he said. “The next president of Egypt can win the elections purely by Facebook campaigns. We’ve lost the struggle to control any sort of media, however, alternative media is the one tool that we can use… [But] we need to work together because the counter-revolution is using it just as much. All the ministries have Facebook pages, the army, the president, they all have Facebook pages and they’re very active on them. We as political groups and as activists and revolutionaries need to be using that to reach out to the people and say, ‘To hell with the army, let’s talk about your rights and talk about moving forward with this.’” Chin Wong

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