Ruth Smeeth: “From Ethiopia to Hong Kong, we will not abandon you”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114148″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Following the news this week has been harrowing. Beyond the ongoing awful deaths from Covid-19 and the daily redundancy notices we also now have some governments turning against their citizens. Free speech around the world, or rather the restrictions on it, have dominated nearly every news cycle and behind each report there have been inspiring personal stories of immense bravery in standing up against repression.

While there have been government orchestrated or sanctioned attacks on free speech across the globe, from Turkey to Poland, Brazil to Kashmir, the most stark has been the appalling attack on human rights in Hong Kong. The Chinese government has dealt a fatal blow to the “one country, two systems” pledge. In the hours that followed the government enacting its new National Security Law for Hong Kong, hundreds of people deleted their social media accounts for fear of arrest. Pro-democracy campaigners have shut up shop in the fear of life imprisonment and journalists on the ground are under huge pressure to curtail their reports.

In spite of the very real threat of arrest, however, thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand their human rights to free association, to free speech and to a life lived without fear of tyranny. Their actions, their bravery and their determination should inspire us all and I’d urge you to read the words of our correspondent from Hong Kong, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho. Events in Hong Kong need to generate more than just a hashtag – we need action from our governments. And we all must stand with Hong Kong.

As events developed in Hong Kong other national leaders were also moving against their populations. On Monday, the Ethiopian musician and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was murdered. Hundeessaa’s music provided the living soundtrack to the protest movement that led to the former prime minister’s resignation. In the hours that followed Hundeessaa’s murder 80 people were killed and the government deployed the military in order to restrict protest and limit access to Hundeessaa’s funeral. They have also switched off access to the internet (again) to stop people telling their stories.

It is easy for us to miss the people behind these events. And in a world where oppression is becoming all too common, sustaining our anger to support one cause when the next outrage is reported can be difficult. But we cannot and will not abandon those who have shown such bravery in the face of brute force and institutional power.

Index was created to be “a voice for the persecuted” and with you we will keep being exactly that.  Providing a platform for the voiceless and shining a light on repressive regimes wherever they may be.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”Essential reading” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Quality overlooked in rush to spread digital access

The “quantity v. quality” debate around global digital access seldom gets the attention it deserves. Here I define “quantity” as the spread of internet access to remote and marginalised communities and “quality” as the extent to which these connections are free from corporate or government restrictions and surveillance.

digital-worldWith more than four billion people yet to come online around the world, basic connectivity is an obvious and necessary prerequisite for digital access. But handing out one laptop per child and selling low-cost smartphones does not solve the quality problem, and can in fact worsen it.

Repressive governments and opportunistic companies sometimes exploit their citizens’ and customers’ ignorance and apathy towards personal privacy and data protection in the name of national security and financial gain. Countries like Iran and China’s biggest web companies are obvious offenders, but western democracies and Silicon Valley startups are far from perfect.

Doling out laptops and ethernet cables without also spreading the internet’s core values of freedom and openness can inadvertently harm newly connected users and the wider web.

NGOs with good intentions sometimes make this mistake. More troubling are companies with financial incentives to lay cables and sell hardware in new markets. Africa is one of the least connected territories, making it, from a corporate perspective, a digital desert ripe for cybercolonialism. Despite being framed as aid, a $20 billion pledge from China to Africa last year was primarily about business. Chinese companies with troubling track records on digital rights and freedoms are also competing to lend their security and surveillance expertise to African governments, a serious cause for concern on the quality side of access.

Frank La Rue, the UN’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has described internet access as a right and acknowledged both the quantity and quality components inherent and critical to the enjoyment of this right. Other digital thought leaders, like Google’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf, has described the internet as an enabler of human rights but not a right in and of itself. Both perspectives hold weight, but we must not forget that the internet can also be used as a disabler of human rights.

Rather than a panacea, the internet can be poison when used to monitor, suppress and prosecute online speech and offline action.

Cyberutopians who think smartphones will set us free have been proven wrong time and time again. On the flip side, this does not mean that cyberdystopians who fear governments will exploit our dependence on technology and digital communications to neutralise dissent are necessarily correct. Increasing the quantity of internet connections without minding the quality of those connections forged can potentially bring greater harm than good for digital access, but such harm is not inevitable. Companies and NGOs working to spread access should ensure that the benefits they bring outweigh potential dangers they create or expose and should ensure that quantity is balanced by quality at the corporate and government levels. Only when this balance is achieved can global digital access truly be advanced.

Bridging the digital divide

Over two billion people across the globe now use the internet, improving access to debates, conversation and information online. Although the number of online users online in developing countries doubled between 2007 and 2011 there is still a huge divide in access to the Internet: only 20 per cent of households in developing countries are online, versus 70 per cent of households in developed ones.  Although technological advances are making internet access cheaper, bridging the digital divide is a problem in both developed and developing countries.

“[E]nsuring universal access to the internet should be a priority for states” according to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on free expression. The UN now ranks digital access as a crucial part of securing the right to free expression.

One of the globe’s emerging economies, India, has a population of approximately 1.2 billion, and 121 million internet users. Of those 121 million people online, only 15 per cent of them are female. Most of those users are in India’s more prosperous cities. Internet access will increase as smart phones access continues to grow but that growth also relies on increased digital education and literacy.

The digital divide is a serious issue in developed countries too — where 30 per cent of people are not online.

While the United States has the second highest number of people online, there are millions of Americans who do not have access to the web — leaving them behind in debates, services, and information that are quickly moving online. According to a recent study, approximately 100 million Americans do not have access to high-speed internet. In rural parts of the United States, 19 million people cannot access high-speed internet because services are not provided in their areas.

The United Kingdom also has a high percentage of the population online — with an internet penetration percent age of 84.1 per cent. Digital access in the UK hinges on income, and whether or not the user is in a rural area. The Office for National Statistics estimates that there are 8.2 million adults who have never used the internet. Eight per cent of the lowest earners in the UK are not online.

The rise of smartphones is rapidly increasing the number of people online but there are still international challenges. Although internet access grew by 18 per cent in developing countries over the last year it has started to level off in developed ones. This means that even though improved and cheaper technology will definitely help diminish the digital gap, states should take steps towards, and helping their citizens get online.

Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index on Censorship