Time for reflection on lock-ins, lockdowns, and shutdowns at the Digital Rights Asia-Pacific Assembly


Digital Rights Asia-Pacific 2023. Source: EngageMedia

By Phet Sayo

This article was originally published by EngageMedia, a non-profit media, technology, and culture organization, and an edited version is republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices. In this blog post, EngageMedia Executive Director Phet Sayo invites old and new allies in the digital rights space to join in the collaborative sense-making process and reflect on the lessons and challenges in navigating the digital rights landscape ahead of the Digital Rights Asia-Pacific 2023 (DRAPAC23) Assembly.

In convening the Assembly, EngageMedia envisions a space for changemakers to build and strengthen knowledge, collaborations, and momentum to advance the digital rights movement after over two years of virtual convenings and limited networking opportunities.

The great 404 of TwentyTwenty (a term my son and I came up to refer to the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in 2020) seems oddly distant and recent simultaneously. Personally and professionally, it was a cause for great change for me. In the last three years, my family moved from Delhi to Toronto, to Vancouver, to find ourselves returning to Asia.

Doubling down on the opportunity for change, my situation is almost 180 degrees different from what it was pre-pandemic. I have become what is termed a “digital nomad.” I’ve become location independent.

In many ways, all of us have been rendered location independent. The COVID-19 disease doesn’t care where we are, while our time spent online elsewhere, for work, school, and play, has dramatically increased.

We remain in a pandemic. Though in some ways true and worth celebrating, I hesitate to promote the DRAPAC23 Assembly as a post-pandemic event. I wish for us to see the Assembly not as an opportunity to get back to business as usual, but rather as an opportunity to reflect on how business and life have become unusual. In thinking about unusualness, I am not calling for a return to things prior to COVID-19; I am calling for us to think about lock-ins, lockdowns, and shutdowns.

With respect to lock-ins, I refer to technological and policy lock-ins that we now accept as normal. Taking advice from our sister organisations, from the heads of the Association for Progressive Communications and LIRNEasia, I suggest that we, the changemakers in digital rights movements, need to up our game regarding how tech standards, development, and governance link to human rights.

Data collection for the public good is a valid perspective but deserves under-the-hood scrutiny. Civil society remains unable to discourse in regional and global institutions and processes in which rights are baked into technological development and deployment.

Regarding lockdowns and shutdowns, the pandemic showed that data flows and network infrastructures are critical for our species’ resilience. Our accelerated interdependence on data flows in our global internet infrastructure has amplified positive and negative agendas facing our networked societies. In the pandemic, surveillance capitalism extended and expanded greatly “into” the classroom and the workplace, which is to say, my children in Canada and India and myself operated in multiple time zones and were tethered to data plans and Zoom culture. Our screens replaced the classroom and the workplace.

The COVID-19 virus has made distancing the default mode of life: we work, learn, and play remotely, no matter the actual distance. There are new costs to operating from a distance, and the poor and marginalised remain the most affected.

From a rights-based perspective, we who are critical have to recalibrate our position, to acknowledge the positive agenda of accelerated mass adoption of the internet. There is a case to be made for framing access to infrastructure as “the” basic right, from which our economic, social, cultural, and political rights are enabled. At the same time, the struggles for online human rights, namely the freedom of expression and assembly, are more relevant than ever, precisely because of the positive agenda around access to infrastructure. I believe we can be champions for both. We don’t have to trade positive benefits for negative impacts. In practice, theory, research, and policy, there’s a great deal of work for us to do.

The first thing to do is to make sense of things. At the Assembly, we invite you to make sense of network and telco shutdowns. We invite you to make sense of the rise of cyber laws of control. We invite you to make sense of how information is disordered and how hate can move near the speed of light. We invite you to think about mass censorship and surveillance, and the shrinking of civic spaces. We invite you to think about intersectionality and different ways of framing challenges around data citizenry. We invite you to consider our adoption of AI and what seems to be the inevitable rise of AGI. We invite you to make sense of data justice and data protection. We invite you to make sense of regionality. We invite you to make sense of the demanding roles of civil society.

Second, no one civil society organisation can take on the multi- and inter-disciplinary nature of the sectors we work in. We invite you to make sense with us, to bring a diversity of expertise for a clearer, more holistic picture of the state of issues. We call for greater coordination/collaboration to manage complexity, to optimise our resources for advancing agreed agendas. We call for solidarity to allow us to work at scale, to allow us the fortitude to meet unprecedented challenges.

We invite you to the DRAPAC23 Assembly (from May 22-May 26), where we hope to move collectively towards sense-making and collaboration.

While the pandemic is not over, it’s time for a mask-to-mask convening. I look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones in Chiang Mai.

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