Last year, during the opening session of the 2015 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, the back of the room suddenly erupted in glossy blue and yellow signs; one read: ‘No to net neutrality violation in Brazil and in the World!’ Civil society advocates had walked through the auditorium to protest Facebook’s Free Basics application and its impacts on free expression online. But just as soon as they had appeared, the signs were ripped away from the protesters, who were forcibly removed from the premises. Only after strong interventions by ARTICLE 19 and others did the security and UN coordinating staff allow them return to the conference.
This year, Mexican civil society also hoped to use the IGF to make their local and national political concerns visible, as it was held in Guadalajara, Mexico from 5 December until 9 December, 2016. But instead of being physically blocked from protesting, the IGF registration process required them to sign a “code of conduct” that included a clause preventing civil society from naming and shaming the Mexican government for its policies. But what relevance would protests have at the Internet Governance Forum, anyway?
The IGF is the annual multi-stakeholder meeting convened by the UN, where Internet governance and policy are debated by representatives from governments, the private sector, civil society, academia, and technical communities.
At this year’s IGF, ARTICLE 19’s delegation participated in over a dozen panels as speakers and held two lightning sessions. We launched our new policy on blocking and filtering online content as well as the Right to Protest Principles, which also address protection of “online” protests. We organised four side-events and supported the regional consultation of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, and the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza. We also presented at two offsite trainings for civil society actors on how to effectively engage in Internet governance.
Central to ARTICLE 19’s participation was ensuring that the IGF discussions recognised the inextricable connection between Internet Governance, human rights and the lives of Internet users. The Brazil office introduced its forthcoming report on community networks, which facilitates greater access to the Internet. The Law Programme cautioned against the vague concept of “youth radicalisation”, and rejected the censorship of online platforms to fight “extremism” and “hate speech”. The Digital Programme’s lightning session explored how technical standards bodies like ICANN and the IETF consider human rights in their processes. ARTICLE 19 also supported the Guadalajara Manifesto issued by Brazilian civil society at the IGF about their concerns regarding their democratic and Internet rights.
We repeatedly highlighted that every layer of the Internet—from its content to its infrastructure—impacts not only our existence online, but our realities offline as well.
As we discussed ways to better ensure users’ rights on the Internet, we couldn’t ignore ongoing and systemic human rights violations in Mexico, both online and offline. Local civil society organisations participating at the IGF, including ARTICLE 19’s Mexico office, denounced the failure of the Mexican government to address corruption and impunity in a statement. The illegality of surveillance, high levels of violence against women, and the digital divide in Mexico were central to our advocacy at the IGF. ARTICLE 19 also made a separate statement in September, focusing on impunity for forced disappearances of journalists. Since 2003, 23 journalists have been disappeared in Mexico. No single individual has been brought to justice for these crimes.
A coalition of NGOs, including ARTICLE 19’s Mexico office, organised a side-event during the IGF, titled ‘Surveillance in Mexico: An Attack on Human Rights’. The presenters highlighted not only the Mexican government’s system of surveillance, but also the growing role that the private sector plays in facilitating human rights abuses through these technologies, and the need for accountability. The event concluded with the experiences of a local activist – a survivor of the 43 students disappearing since 2014-, who recounted the chilling effect that digital surveillance has on those who dare to dissent, and the very real threat of reprisal offline.
In this context, we were disappointed to see criticism of the Mexican authorities by Mexican civil society at the IGF censored through the “code of conduct” implemented by the UN. ARTICLE 19 was invited to speak during the closing session, and we were repeatedly told not to explicitly refer to the Mexican Government in our remarks. Censoring any form of offline criticism while emphasising the importance of online freedom of expression makes a mockery of the IGF.
Our speech raised this, and other fundamental issues, regarding trust online under rampant surveillance, connecting the unconnected, discrimination and violence against women online. It also focused on the need to create an online public sphere where discrimination, exclusion and misogyny are no longer chronic human rights violations fostered by impunity.