Saturday Apr 08, 2017
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Digital rights are human rights, says Nighat Dad at RightsCon 2017

Digital rights are human rights, says Nighat Dad at RightsCon 2017

BRUSSELS: A three-day conference on internet and digital rights gathered over one thousand experts from various fields here, who broadly concluded that states across the globe were using security concerns as an excuse to shrink the digital space.

The sixth conference of its kind, RightsCon 2017 was first initiated after social media's role in Arab Spring. The event, held from March 29-31, included around 250 sessions under 20 main themes including Freedom of Expression, Algorithmic Accountability and Transparency, Business and Human Rights, Empowering At-Risk Communities, Privacy and Data Protection, Digital Security and Encryption, Borders and Boundaries, Stop the Hate, Global Journalism, States in Cyberspace, Tech, Democracy and Digital Inclusion.

Like previous conferences in Latin America, North America and South East Asia, stakeholders, including digital rights experts, human rights activists, parliamentarians, writers, lawyers, bloggers and security experts judged global trends, voiced concerns and suggested remedies.

Besides many other sessions, award-winning digital rights activist Nighat Dad was one of the key speakers at a high-level conference in the European Parliament. The conference was hosted by the highly committed free speech activist, MEP Marietje Schaake from Netherlands who had earlier invited Julian Assange at the European Parliament. The conference titled “Tech and Foreign Policy-Bridging the Gap” also brought NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General Jamie Shea, who shocked the jam-packed hall by saying that the recent attacks on American dams were attributed to Iranian cyber attackers.

Expanding on the alleged cyber manipulations in US elections, he said that NATO needs to seriously consider ways to thwart cyber threats, especially regarding space programs, as unlike classic defence capabilities, NATO lacked enough technical expertise to ward off cyber attacks in the particular area. “...cyber attacks could engender classic military responses, capable of wreaking havoc,” said Shea.

Nighat Dad acknowledged the growing digital commerce and internet usage in India and Pakistan as a positive trend. She, however, said that digital growth and obsession with smart cities were increasingly lacking the notions of human rights.

Commenting on Pakistan's cryber crime law, she said that the bill was rationalised as a means to protect women from online harassment but is in fact being used to suppress the rights and freedom of the online community. This is evident from the mysterious disappearance of five bloggers early this year and the resultant atmosphere of self-censorship and fear, she added.

She condemned the “outsourcing” of monitoring, regulating and decision-making to private companies. “The commercial sector has a role in building civil societies but we cannot outsource decision-making to these companies,” she said. “Digital rights are human rights.”

Criticising US’ decision to ban travelling with laptops, she made the audience chuckle by saying, “It is a ban on Muslim laptops.”

Talking to on the sidelines, she said that governments should strike a balance between security concerns and human rights, adding that the current situation in Pakistan is worrisome for human rights activists as well as every internet user of the country.

Siddharth Narrain, an Indian rights activist among the panellists on the session “Stopping Hate Speech: Countering Violent Extremism” talked exclusively to He said that one of the major concerns in India was the growing intolerance, misogynist attacks, right-wing trolling and incitement to violence online. Mentioning Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2015, he said that the law was struck down by a High Court in India and was being used against people who dared to criticise powerful personalities or parties.

“In this conference, we discussed how to tackle hate speech and extremist content through non-legal measures such as counter-speech, counter-reporting mechanisms and more transparency,” Narrain added.

About the increasing trend of internet shutdowns in India, he said that around 50 such incidents have been tracked in the last few years. “This has worrying implications for freedom of speech as these measures, taken in the name of maintaining law and order, are also used to clamp down on dissent,” he concluded. He also mentioned how Gujarat police had used Section 144 of CCP to shut down internet during an agitation mobilised using WhatsApp.


Edited by Sindhu Abassi