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Wafa Ben Hassine: your rights in bytes and bandwidth

“Digital rights are human rights. The same rights you have as a human being existing in flesh and bones should exist in bytes and bandwidth.”

This is the mantra that human rights advocate Wafa Ben Hassine stresses, the mantra that drives her work. As a Tunisian-American living in Tunis, she sees digital rights as something that can affect us all, wherever we are in the world.

“The internet really means different things for different people. For me, the internet means home. It’s a channel to communicate with those I love the most, and to keep connected with the things I care about the most as well,” she tells the audience at the Lush Creative Showcase in September 2016.

Wafa has recently taken on a new challenge, adding to her experience as a human rights advocate, law graduate and writer. She’s the newest member of Access Now, a group defending digital rights across the globe, and Wafa is leading advocacy and policy in the MENA region. One of her focuses will be fighting government ordered internet shutdowns. The day before Wafa introduces the #KeepItOn campaign to Lush, she meets me to talk about her work. She says: “Internet shutdowns are something we’re taking very seriously, as evidenced by the #KeepItOn campaign. There’s a lot of abusive counterterrorism and cybercrime legislation that could infringe on users’ rights online, such as their right to privacy, or their right to free and uninhibited freedom of speech.”

The #KeepItOn campaign has a global outlook. The 2011 shutdown in Egypt was the initial spark for the #KeepItOn campaign, and it was finally given oxygen at RightsCon, a global convention discussing the future of the internet. The campaign is made up of organisations from across the world, united in their efforts to fight government ordered internet shutdowns. Wafa describes the campaign as a way to: “pressure different governments to first of all not engage in internet shutdowns, and also to encourage telecoms companies to not give in to those government orders.”

In 2011, the internet was shut down in Egypt in an apparent attempt to re-establish control during protests. Protesters were arrested, and some were killed. Wafa vehemently rejects this defence for a shutdown, saying: “We have to challenge the rhetoric used by governments that shutdowns are being used to restore law and order. The internet could be used for good or evil in many situations, but it’s a tool that people have to rely on.”

Why are internet shutdowns such a cause for concern? Wafa explains: “You’re basically killing a population for x amount of time. You’re stopping a country or individuals from engaging not only in regular affairs and regular business, but also from talking to loved ones, and from reporting emergencies.”

Aside from the direct impact of internet shutdowns, there is a further concern. After tracking and studying patterns, Access Now has established that further human rights abuses often occur during internet shutdowns. Wafa says: “A lot of governments initiate shutdowns when there are protests or unrest, so they shut down the internet to prohibit access or communication amongst people. This way, those governments can do things in the dark. There are several recorded instances of police brutality and killings occurring during internet shutdowns.” During a shutdown in Gabon on 31 August, at least two people were killed, while dozens were killed during the 2013 internet shutdown in Sudan.

Internet shutdowns aren’t the only threat to digital rights, and Wafa describes her greatest concern as: “Governments using national security rhetoric to make people think they have to sacrifice a part of their liberty in order to have a secure country or a genuine safe livelihood.” She describes millennials as having a feeling of genuine ownership of the internet, and that if they knew how their digital rights were being infringed upon, they’d be disgusted. She says: “I have hope in that generation, because I think once they know, they’ll be better poised to make a difference to stop those abuses which occur all the time.”

With the UK preparing to leave the European Union, what does Wafa think Brexit means for digital rights in the UK? She’s quick to point out that everything is very uncertain, but she does have concerns about the future. “Regardless of when and if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the UK must maintain its commitments to domestic and international human rights obligations as it negotiates Brexit terms - whilst keeping in mind that the UK passed a law implementing the European Convention on Human Rights domestically.”

Wafa has something else on her mind about the UK and US, and passionately discusses the overuse of surveillance of online communications, and the plethora of CCTV cameras. She sees surveillance as an infringement on privacy: “Are you hiding guns or drugs in your house? If not, then why do you lock your door? It’s so you can have your privacy. It’s the same thing with surveillance. I wouldn’t leave my door unlocked without reason, although I have nothing to hide. I like to keep my life private.”

Wafa wants the UN to take a very active role in stopping shutdowns, but she also has a message for the rest of the world: “People can actually fight back, people like you. Just talking about it to your friends or colleagues can have a tremendous impact. We’re only going to win this fight with you all.”

There's more from Wafa on the Lush Player, where she speaks at the Creative Showcase and joins Charlie Moores for a podcast.

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