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Digital rights: Learning lessons from the Middle East

“Technology is moving really quickly. We need to make sure our digital and human rights are protected.” - Deji Bryce Olukotun, Access Now

The digital landscape is constantly transforming, and so is the policy that surrounds it: while the UK is experiencing changes like the Investigatory Powers Act and Digital Economy Bill, the US has begun asking for social media information from foreign travellers.

Index on Censorship, Access Now and Bahrain Watch are just a handful of the organisations working to protect digital rights and free speech across the globe, a problem that is too big for one organisation to tackle alone. They joined a panel on digital rights in the Middle East at the Lush Summit, an event where charities, speakers and grassroots organisations from around the world met to discuss their work.

As technology evolves at a rapid pace across the planet, why are digital rights in the Middle East significant for the rest of the world? Melody Patry, Senior Advocacy Officer at free speech organisation Index on Censorship, said: “Unfortunately, the Middle East is a great case study to look at the various tools that, especially authoritarian regimes, are taking to silence dissent.”

She explained that there is not only a lack of privacy laws, but existing legislation is also being repurposed for digital issues. Terror, national security and libel laws are being used to prosecute citizens for online activity.

With the internet often used to organise protests, share grievances about the current government, and express feelings about what is happening in a country, she reflected on past uprisings, saying: “Social media were tools people were using to organise themselves.”

Index on Censorship supports people across the globe: “What we have noticed is that all forms of expression, whether it’s an activist, a musician, a writer, or a journalist, are all under attack - and in the digital world especially.”

While the digital world is opening up opportunities for freedom of expression, authorities have been targeting those spaces: “How they did it was either very technically, or by intimidating people from speaking out online. They would for example arrest famous bloggers or social media personalities.”

Ali Abdulemam knows this only too well. The online activist and founder of pro-democracy news site Bahrain Online was arrested for spreading false information. Enacting his right to freedom of speech, the blogs he wrote criticising the ruling Al Khalifa family ultimately led to his imprisonment.  Joining the panel discussion, he said: “There was no online law for publishing in Bahrain. They used other laws to punish me.”

His citizenship was later revoked, and he fled to the UK to avoid further arrest. He said: “Still, they don’t have a clear law about how to deal with cybercrime and cyber security.”

In Bahrain, a digital curfew is now taking place every night in a targeted area where protests are happening. Bahrain Watch, an investigative research and analysis collective, analysed the data to confirm that it was a deliberate shutdown. Deji Bryce Olukotun, senior advocacy manager of digital rights organisation Access Now, was also on the Lush Summit panel: “It’s a new form of shutdown - it’s a very targeted, very narrow area.”

Internet shutdowns first gained attention in 2011, when Egypt experienced a country-wide shutdown. Access Now has raised awareness with #KeepItOn, a campaign to end government ordered internet shutdowns.

Melody Patry said: “At some point, authorities will have to realise that shutting down the internet is bad for the domestic economy.”

While she is encouraged that people in the Middle East are still demanding their rights, she said: “There’s still lots to be done. Too many people are in jail, or worse.”

Ali Abdulemam sees change on the horizon: “This generation and the next generation is totally different. They want their freedom. I’m looking at this as the face of the struggle.”

He urged anyone facing rights abuses to push the boundaries, to keep themselves well protected, and when challenging the authorities to “make them believe that they cannot control us anymore.”

Watch the Digital Rights in the Middle East panel on Lush Player

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