HomeCommentaryPattern of dangers and search for digital justice

Pattern of dangers and search for digital justice

Last March 22 to 23, the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL) facilitated my participation at the Asia-Pacific Conference on Internet Freedom in Bangkok, Thailand.

Together with Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), I was included in the Day 1 panel discussion titled Risks to Internet Users where I lectured on the Role of Disinformation in Land Grabbing Indigenous Lands.

I was met with warm sentiments from my fellow panelists, bearing phrases that they were unaware of the gravity of online attacks experienced by indigenous peoples in the Philippines despite their lack of access to the internet.

But the rest of the program was just as humbling on my end. With a variety of countries and thematic perspectives shared, I was affirmed on the common struggle of the South East Asian countries—that regional policies are also used to attack the peoples’ right to freedom of expression and right to assembly.

An example of state-sponsored surveillance leading to security risks and challenges was presented by Victoire Rio from the Myanmar Internet Project.

With a shaky voice, she narrated how the country had the highest number of internet shutdowns in 2022, and how in 2023 the military council cut mobile phone networks and implemented the Electronic Identification (EID) system for acquiring the citizen’s information.

Myanmar also has a campaign of terror, as they doxxed supporters, pressed charges against influencers, and criminalized shares, likes, and comments.

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The restrictive legislative measures are a tale the Philippines is familiar with. We have yet to see how the National ID system and the Sim Card Registration Law will be used in the country, but regional trends should teach us to anticipate the same results.

Sadaf Khan of the Association of Progressive Communication told us how the Indian Adhaar database, a National ID Card system, was used to identify and track individuals who have been involved in protests. She also shared how the Pakistani government in 2013 used spyware to monitor the communication of activists and journalists.

Emerging technology such as spyware was the center of Darika Bamrungchok of Thai Netizen Network. She clearly emphasized how each passing year, corporations develop better high-tech equipment.

She ends the discussion with the question, “What can we do to hold the big tech companies accountable?” It was a question that one session could not answer at that very moment but was evident that the panelists and attendees sought to tread on in the whole program, in their whole career as digital rights defenders.

I was mostly drawn to the discussion given by Nayantara Ranganathan from Digital Asia Hub. She had a project where she compiled all the false advertisements online, and created an art exhibit of it.

We had a similar theme in our presentation on how big corporations use ads to greenwash their operations, but hers was detailed as she requested data from Meta to assess how AI-mediated filtering target users based on their online activity.

Meta was the only big social media company present at the event. They are notorious for not taking sufficient steps to counter speech that incite violence online, in order to prevent or mitigate human rights impacts linked to their platforms.

They recognized the concerns of each country, and shared their human rights analysis over the past years, but eventually remarked how their team focusing on human rights is small, hence their limited capacity. During one of the coffee breaks, Sonya, an Indonesian staff from Meta, approached me and gave me her work email should our organization have immediate concerns that Meta could address.

Overall, the conference, although data-heavy, was also filled with positive energy as I witnessed their passion for digital rights advocacy. There is a lot to unpack yet, and I am willing to learn more beyond the conference.

As we exchanged contacts at the end of the event, I was able to talk to the Executive Director of Engage Media, Phet Sayo. He told me casually, as he was writing his number on a piece of paper, that the digital space is not “real”.

It was an astounding statement given how we talked about it extensively for two days. But it was true, our gadgets could vanish or be turned off in a second, and it’s gone.

I look back at our short conversation, and maybe he means something different, but I interpreted it as how the fight against surveillance, censorship, digital authoritarianism, and internet freedom will be solved on the ground. Strategic litigation in response to repressive laws is dealt with offline, and toppling dictators are faced with protests.

A protester stands with a placard during a rally at a free-speech park called Speakers’ Corner in Singapore on June 8, 2013. (AFP Photo)

In the Philippines, the hand-in-hand pervasiveness of social media among Filipinos and the railroading of overbroad laws on digital spaces will likely engender a chilling effect.

As of today, we are witnessing how the ‘counterterrorism’ tactics of the state have pushed our people to self-censor themselves, even if speaking freely on matters of public interest is a human right.

It is imperative for activists to address the collaboration of online and offline attacks, by actively debunking disinformation and uncovering the truth.

As the US and its collaborating corporations develop their technology fast, this leaves us with the challenge to strengthen solidarity in the Global South by consolidating existing regional networks. Geopolitical dynamics are at work because our governments are also structured under the same war tactics by the US.

There is a lot we can do–we should painstakingly document the impacts of national laws, craft policies built on the consensus of key stakeholders, quickly respond to individuals in immediate threat, promote internet freedom and human rights, reassess and hone the leadership steering us in this advocacy.

And above all, we should be present on-ground, as searching for digital justice can only be built through the collective decision and action of our people.

Eloisa Mesina is a Filipino youth activist and chairperson of the Kabataan para sa Tribung Pilipino (KATRIBU). The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.This piece was first published at the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination & Liberation (IPMSDL) website on June 26, 2023. 

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