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The workshop was moderated by Ms Jessica Dheere, Social Media Exchange, a Beirut based organisation that advances digital rights in the middle East and North Africa.
Governments are increasingly enacting laws to govern the Internet. The session aimed to create awareness of the context of recent internet legislation and also highlight some case studies from different actors. Participants also heard about challenges in Internet laws including copycatting, or how legislations move from one jurisdiction to another.
Ms Bruna Santos, Consultant and Advocacy Strategist, Coding Rights, shared the experience of Brazil where there were currently over 400 bills attempting to regulate different aspects of the Internet. The bills, which cover issues like cybercrime, have far reaching consequences for civil rights and this led to an initiative by civil society for an all encompassing privacy bill. The bill was developed collaboratively, and events such as the Facebook data sales scandal were key in convincing lawmakers of the importance of protecting privacy.
The privacy bill, now enacted, came after the successful 2014 initiative of marco civilor Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights. The bottom up approach was employed, but it is important to point out that even in this approach, a lot of work goes into ensuring meaningful participation that results in a good bill.
Mr Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative, described a similar initiative in Nigeria. Inspired by marco civil, civil society organisations in Nigeria drafted a declaration on digital rights. They later transformed it into a bill and sought a sponsor. They also consulted with other stakeholders to enrich the bill and this took about two years.
Some of the issues covered in the bill include freedom of speech, privacy and safeguards for cyber related investigations. The bill had passed in two houses of parliament and was awaiting presidential assent. Sesan was concerned that if the president did not sign it before the end of his term, they would have to repeat the process. Nigeria goes to presidential elections next February.
Ms Lisa Vermeer, Senior Policy Officer, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands, highlighted some trends in recent Internet legislation. These included rights suppressing laws on cybersecurity and cybercrime, informational security, fake news and disinformation. She stressed the importance of monitoring human rights and collaborating with governments. One reason for collaboration was to ensure compliance. With information from monitoring, they could also help push back on repressive laws and avoid copycatting of bad laws.
Ms Gayatri Khandhadai, South Asia Human Rights Programme Officer, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia),supported the idea of a depository of digital rights laws. She described the various laws that impact digital rights, from Internet specific ones to general laws that affect cyberspace. Interestingly, when an offline crime became an online crime, it attracted higher and more punitive penalties. For example, online hate speech in Bangladesh attracted a 14 year sentence compared to a three year sentence for the same crime offline. She stated that these laws often abrogated national constitutional guarantees and noted that they were also reactionary to events. In the case of fake news laws, they were in response to election time online campaigns.
Ms Agustina del Campo, Centre for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (CELE), summarised the discussion of Internet legislation as a lack of coherence between core decisions and legislation, the impact of core decisions and legislation, and common challenges between core decisions and elective processes. She gave the example of intermediary liability in seven Latin American countries, where there is not much legislation on net neutrality yet there is a tendency to regulate intermediaries. Courts therefore have to develop jurisprudence on how far intermediaries should be liable. Other common challenges included copycat legislation to address issues prone to litigation. Yet, she noted, technology moves faster than the law.
Questions from the audience included the issue of harmonisation of laws, given the multi jurisdictional nature of the Internet. Even within countries, different government departments had varying views on digital freedoms, with the interior security ministry being notorious for recommending more information controls. Participants admired the institutional processes in the EU which had resulted in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It was noted that transparency in law making was key in getting rights respecting laws.
The audience also expanded the issue of legislation from a rights based approach to commercial regulation of the internet. They brought in aspects of extraterritorial regulation imposed by large multinational companies and pointed out that sometimes such regulation is harmful. In addition, the development and application of the GDPR was cited repeatedly in terms of process and substance of the law. It was noted in a positive light that many countries have been forced to legislate to comply with the GDPR.
By Grace Mutung'u