ICTs – A double-edged sword for Women Human Rights Defenders
FRIDAY FILE: Understanding the inherent contradictions in using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to promote and protect women’s rights is an important starting point for women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who face risks of violence and intimidation on a daily basis because of who they are and the work they do.
By Susan Tolmay
AWID spoke to Jennifer Radloff, Senior project coordinator at Association for Progressive Communications Women's Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP)
November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women marking the start of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, which runs through to December 10, Human Rights Day. As we commemorate the date of the brutal assassination of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, on orders of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo - and we are reminded of the risks that many WHRDs face daily - we should consider the new forms of violence and harassment that WHRDs face through the use of ICTs, the opportunities they represent and the human rights implications.
Internet rights as human rights
In his May 2011 report, Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, stated that, “Indeed, the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”. And recently Sweden proposed that the Human Rights Council establish an expert panel on Internet and human rights. These developments are major step forward and give credence to the critical importance of the Internet as a space that enables citizens to enjoy their human rights.
ICTs have become an indispensible part of our daily lives as we work and connect through social networking such as Facebook and Twitter; use mobile phones to talk and send SMS’s (short message service). According to Jennifer Radloff, “The ubiquity of ICTs and how WHRDs use the tools means that boundaries between the online and offline world are often blurred as we use ICTs so frequently and intuitively”
But she also points out that “WHRDs are not a homogenous group and access, comfort, age, geographic location, familiarity, trust, language, resources, (dis) ability all play a part in potentially excluding those WHRDs without easy access to ICTs. In order not to unconsciously disrupt and tear the threads and experiences that bind us, we should acknowledge the limits of ICTs, as well as the built-in power dynamics. But, for our work to be effective, we need to take control of the technologies and deploy them creatively and infuse our technology practice with feminist principles in order to enhance and deepen our movement building.”
WHRDs at risk
Margaret Sekaggya, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders submitted her third report to the UN Human Rights Council, which focused on the situation of women human rights defenders and those working on women's rights or gender issues. According to the report, women defenders are more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence and other violations than their male counterparts. “This is often due to the fact that women defenders are perceived as challenging accepted socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society”.
The Special Rapporteur's report explicitly mentions ICT as a means to convey threats of violence, but it also considers ICT-mediated violence as violations in themselves: “Threats and death threats – which may be delivered in person, by telephone, in printed pamphlets or mock obituaries and electronically via text message or e-mail-- can be seen as representative of risks, but also as violations in themselves which may significantly harm the psychological integrity of the defender, as well as possibly predating an attack. These threats are directed not only at the defenders themselves but also their family members, as well as female family members of male human rights defenders.”
Using ICTs for advocacy
The opportunities and uses of ICTs for defending women’s rights are indisputable. The proliferation of social networking sites, YouTube, blogs and other information sharing spaces provide WHRDs with accessible, cost effective tools to document abuses, build evidence, raise awareness, publicise and mobilize support around women’s rights issues and the risks that women activists face.
Increasingly, mobile phones are being used to send out urgent actions and alerts and smart phones, with capacities for photographing and videoing are increasingly being used to broadcast events in real time, evidenced in the various popular uprisings and social movements that have been taking place across the globe this year. And the potential for immediate responses to life threatening situations is hugely advantageous.
Using social networking tools and email means that WHRDs are able to reach out to millions of people quickly and urgent calls to action and online petitions can effectively apply pressure on governments, large corporations and international human rights bodies. They not only amplify the voice of WHRDs and raise awareness around urgent issues and promote action, but also provide an opportunity for WHRDs to be connected with and supported by other WHRDs in different places. The ability to stay anonymous is another advantage of using ICTs as it means that WHRDs are able to minimize risks of threats, intimidation and violence, although this is not always possible.
But there is a downside
It is becoming increasingly evident that WHRDs using ICTs for their activism and advocacy are facing challenges in both their personal and public spaces. According to Radloff, “Violence against women online is a real and frightening reality…. there are countless cases of women bloggers being threatened with violence for expressing their opinions online.” In countries with repressive governments the risks are even greater for WHRDs.
The widespread use of ICTs to defend human and women’s rights is cause for concern for repressive governments who are complicit in routinely violating these rights. Attempts by authorities to constrain WHRDs from using ICTs to their full potential take a range of forms, including interference with Internet services, use of legal restrictions, email surveillance and monitoring, computer confiscation, virus and spyware attacks as well as harassment, intimidation and reprisals. These deliberate and routine infringements on WHRDs’ online security and privacy affect their rights to freedom of expression and association, amongst others. The extent of these violations varies across regions.
According to Radloff, “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 use to communicate, share and create change with are the same tools that the state and anti-progressive forces can use to track, trace and target us. ICT tools are not neutral and were created for purposes and by people with specific agendas that are not necessarily progressive. Just as ICT tools are not neutral, the spaces we create online are embedded in the gender-power relationships that prevail offline”
Unequal power relations and access to ICTs mean that WHRDs may not be as confident or tech savvy as they should be in order to protect themselves from some of the dangers of online activism. This has direct security implications for WHRDs who are targeted by States and fundamentalist groups, who block and filter their content. According to Radloff, “In some countries filters are loaded onto public access computers which means content which could be life-saving and life-changing are being blocked and filtered. e.g. content on safe sex, shelters for abused women and access to safe abortion. Impersonation through hacking into email or Facebook accounts means that issues of maintaining online and offline trust is breached.”
Laws governing the Internet are negotiated at various levels and in different forums and increasingly Internet rights are being discussed in spaces such as the United Nations and the Human Rights Commission. Each year the multi-stakeholder platform, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meets to discuss how the Internet is governed. This year APC and its allies suggested that human rights be the theme for the 2012 IGF.
It is also important that WHRDs ensure that Internet rights and women's human rights are included in spaces such as the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and that we lobby for this at CEDAW and Beijing Platform review processes.
Take back the Tech securely!
According to Radloff, “Women’s human rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association are constantly being affected by changes in technology and we must understand how these changes are experienced in light of sexuality, class, geographic location, race, and other axes of marginalization. WHRDs must be able to respond to these changes and continue to build their capacity to find new ways to participate in and shape these changes.”
It is important for WHRDs to understand the technology and the environmental context in which they are working, and that security is impermanent. This means that it is crucial to stay up to date with changing contexts, surveillance techniques and policy responses. We need to be aware of security and change our behavior to correspond with security concerns. WHRDs need to understand online privacy and security issues and learn how to defend themselves and to be safe online, see below for some tools on how to ensure safety online and get involved in the Take Back the Tech Campaign as a way of learning more about ICTs and activism.
 He says in relation to freedom of expression online “Any restriction must be established by law and be in accordance with international standards; must pursue legitimate grounds for restriction as set out in article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and be proven to be necessary and proportionate,” stressed La Rue. “Expression such as child pornography, incitement to genocide, advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence and incitement to terrorism are all prohibited under international law.”
 APC explanation of security and privacy - 'Online security and privacy includes issues such as protecting data, protecting identity (the right to communicate free of the threat of surveillance and interception) and protecting against computer viruses. As media workers and human rights organisations around the world make increasing use of online technologies, there is a corresponding increase in the need for skills, knowledge, and tools to ensure that the use of technology is both effective and secure. This need is especially acute in the case of groups operating under repressive political conditions or in situations of conflict, where the challenge is to gather, protect and disseminate information effectively in a way, which minimises risk to activists. The APC Internet Rights Charter states that people communicating on the internet must have the right to use tools which encode messages to ensure secure, private and anonymous communication.' http://www.genderit.org/glossary/term/876
 As one participant said at a workshop Connect Your Rights – Secure online communications training for women human rights defenders hosted by APC WNSP in partnership with Violence is not our culture (VNC) and WHRD International Coalition (workshops have been held in Asia, Africa and LAC) in response to a question whether an online community of WHRDs sharing tools and strategies around being secure online would be a good idea: “every country has their specific context surrounding online security but the fact is that all of us are at risk of being identified, and our information is vulnerable to being cracked. Online community will help us to share our situation and try to make it better with secure habits in using the Internet. We can also use it to help spread awareness of secure online activism”.
 Be safe online - Get to know technology and find out how you can take steps to make your online experience a safer one. This link provides some tips and ideas on how you can protect your privacy while browsing and communicating online. http://www.takebackthetech.net/be-safe
Protecting personal data on your computer - http://www.takebackthetech.net/be-safe/privacy
Password protect your computer Download a reliable anti-virus software Install a firewall on your computer Use proxies to anonymously surf the web
Web browsing - http://www.takebackthetech.net/be-safe/browsing
When you are looking for information over the Internet and browsing websites, information about your activity is also collected and stored. Clear your cache Clear your browsing history Clear your download history Use https everywhere (for Firefox) which encrypts your communications with a number of major websites
Emails and web mails - http://www.takebackthetech.net/be-safe/emails
Don't open attachments from sources you do not trust Run an anti-virus before opening attachments Chose a secure email client such as Mozilla Thunderbird Encrypt your emails uses PGP (Pretty Good Privacy)
Online Chat - http://www.takebackthetech.net/be-safe/online-chat
There are a lot of ways that you can communicate "securely" using Internet Messenger services. The most common IM services are Yahoo, AIM, Google Chat and Skype. Most of them have their own clients (i.e. Yahoo Messenger).
Mobile Phones - http://www.takebackthetech.net/be-safe/mobile-phones
Mobile phones, especially now that even basic handsets incorporate camera and recording capabilities, are excellent tools for documenting violence and harassers. Consider password protecting your phone Have an alternative SIM card if you feel you are being monitored by anyone Phones are easily lost or stolen, don't keep intimate photos on your phone
Security in a box This toolkit is designed primarily to address the growing needs of advocates in the global South, particularly human rights defenders, but the software and strategies in this toolkit are relevant to digital security in general. It has something to offer anyone who works with sensitive information. This may include vulnerable minorities, independent journalists or 'whistle-blowers', in addition to advocates working on a range of issues, from environmental justice to anti-corruption - http://www.tacticaltech.org/securityinabox
Digital Security and Privacy for Human Rights Defenders - This book is an introduction to the ever growing and complex world of electronic security. It raises levels of knowledge and awareness about computers and the Internet, and warns of different risks faced in the digital environment and how to deal with them. The book is written for human rights defenders, and therefore it also looks at the ways of preventing the erosion of universally guaranteed freedoms. Alongside elements of theory, it offers possible solutions to some security issues for computers and the Internet. https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/esecman/
“Strategise Online Activism: A Toolkit” was designed for and by women activists but can be used by everyone. Key chapters include: strategising and planning your online activism; creating your campaign’s identity; social networking and security on the Internet. The guide provides practical and accessible step-by-step advice, while keeping a political and feminist eye. It was developed by Violence is Not our Culture (VNC) campaign and APC’s women’s programme (APC WNSP) - http://www.vnc-campaigns.org/toolkit
Danger and Opportunity - ICTs and women human rights defenders
Policy Advocacy Get involved in local, national and international policy advocacy initiatives that lobby legislators to ensure the Internet is regulated in ways that as a WHRD do not compromise our right to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Find out more about gender and ICT policy advocacy - A start is www.genderit.org