In a world where the population is becoming increasingly connected through the Internet and digital tools, the transfer of information and ideas has become more prevalent than ever.
As of April 2017, 3.8 billion people had access to the Internet, according to a Digital in 2017 study, which used numbers from the United Nations and the United States Census Bureau. This means that over half of the world’s population has access to the Internet, and subsequently, one another.
With this explosion of Internet use and communication comes a great opportunity for human rights defenders, journalists, and activists who now have a global platform for their causes and ideas. After only 25 years of public access to the World Wide Web, human rights defenders have already used the power of social media to overthrow oppressive regimes, organize election protests and publicize some of the injustices suffered by women and girls around the world.
However, the Internet also poses a threat to human rights defenders and their causes as oppressive regimes use their powers to silence those who voice dissent or attempt to publicize human rights abuses. Governments can now inhibit citizen’s digital human rights and use the Internet to block access to information through internet shutdowns and censorship.
Mass surveillance by governments can cause human rights defenders to self-censor or be fearful of advocacy online. For female human rights defenders in particular, online risks are high as attacks against them and their organizations are frequently more sexualized and frequent than those on their male counterparts. In many of these cases, it is not only government organizations that are threatening these defenders, but private actors and terrorist organizations whose goal is to threaten advocates through personal attacks on activists and their families.
Female human rights defenders are especially at risk in these instances and have reported threats of rape, death, and harassment as police and government agencies refuse to act. Defenders’ personal Facebook and social media accounts have been the targets of online and sometimes in-person harassment as internet attackers have used the information published online to identify the location and personal information of the defenders.
The problem of protecting digital security has become so pervasive that the United Nations Human Rights Council has become increasingly more focused on protecting digital rights through resolutions adopted in 2012, 2014 and 2016, which declared that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.” These resolutions have also been centered around digital privacy and access to anonymity.
Nevertheless, in the wake of highly publicized terrorist attacks, more governments have cited national security as a priority over citizens’ rights to privacy and free expression. Statistics indicate that governments are more concerned with controlling access to information than protecting human rights defenders. Currently, more journalists have been jailed for online activities than for reporting in traditional media, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
For this reason, human rights defenders, especially women, need more training and resources in order to arm themselves against online threats. Security software, online toolkits and even a changes in computer-use tactics can help human rights defenders protect themselves on the Web. These services and resources can be costly, particularly for human rights organizations with limited resources and budgets, but can make the difference in human rights defenders safety and well-being.
The Forum on Women at the Carter Center will host an online Roundtable discussion on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, at 12:30 p.m. EST discussing Digital Security and Online Activism with panelists Nighat Dad, a Digital Rights activist and Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation, RuthAnna Buffalo, a Consultant at Honor the Earth and Sacred Pipe Resource Center who will share her experience during the #StandingRock campaign, and Atlas Corps Fellow Abeer Pamuk.