IGMENA weighed the interplay between human rights and technology in the MENA region at RightsCon 2016  

This past month, Hivos IGMENA organized a workshop at RightsCon Silicon Valley 2016 under the title: the interplay between human rights and technology: policies and regulations in the MENA and Latin America regions. The workshop aimed at discussing the nexus between technology and human rights being challenged by legal frameworks that regulate fundamental human rights on the internet ecosystem.

In this vein, the workshop brought legal, technical and policy expertise to moot the complex legal concepts vis-à-vis the relationship between technology and human rights. The focus was on the legal protection afforded to online freedom of expression, privacy and other digital rights and its compliance with the international human rights standards. For this purpose, the workshop refrained from tackling these concepts in abstract and discussed their implementation in the regional context of the Middle East and North Africa as well as Latin America.

To this aim, the workshop spotlighted the practices in MENA region through sharing the key findings of the research conducted by Internet Legislation Atlas, which is an initiative to assess and visualize the level of compliance of selected digital rights in seven MENA countries apropos international human rights standards. In order to learn from the experience of different region, Red LatAm project, which investigates internet regulations and policies in Latin America, was also presented.

The workshop was moderated by Hanane Boujemi, IGMENA Program Manager, who opened the session by introducing ILA project and its main objectives and scope of work. Then Noha Fathy, ILA Project Lead, outlined the legal landscape and the ecosystem of internet-related laws in the MENA region. She also expounded how ILA as a tool provides better understanding to the impact internet-related laws have on human rights. Her presentation further underlined the main regional challenges and identified some of the gaps in the nexus between human rights and technology which include poor understanding to the internet governance process, lack of engagement of concerned stakeholders, lack of transparency of policymaking process, applying the same laws online and offline as well as overregulation.

Gabrielle Guillemin, Legal Officer, ARTICLE 19, who was part of the research team that developed ILA indicators to gauge the local legal frameworks that regulate the digtial space, explicated the main challenges in applying these yardsticks in the MENA region. This included identifying the main indicators that are relevant to the regional context and pondering over which benchmarks would better assess the local legal frameworks and their compliance with the UN standards. Additionally, considering carefully the rights that are most relevant, i.e. freedom of expression and privacy, was another challenge. Finally, collecting the laws and analysing them proved to be a difficult job.

Two of ILA local legal partners joined the workshop to reflect on their experience working on the grassroots level. Ali Bangi, Co-Director, ASL19 pointed out how a tool like ILA helps bridging the knowledge gap in Iran where local legislation mostly fails to protect human rights on the internet. The Iranian constitution and laws have various articles that enshrine freedoms; however they are always followed by limitations that are unduly restrictive of online freedoms. On the other hand, Roula Mekhael, Executive Director, Maharat Foundation, emphasized that the monopoly of the ICT infrastructure and services, oppression and control of online content, and the absence of some legislation, specifically those concerned with online privacy, are the major challenges in Lebanon. Roula added that criminal defamation, particularly of public figures, is yet another major issue that is antithetical to freedom of expression and to the international human rights standards. For that reason, Maharat Foundation crafted a bill calling for a clear definition for what constitutes defamation.
To extrapolate the situation in the MENA region, Walid Al-Saqaf, Researcher and ISOC Board Member, alluded to the complex landscape in the Middle East where advocacy alone is not sufficient since approaching governments needs a more comprehensive approach. In this regard, he denoted that innovation and opportunities provided by the internet should be highlighted to legislators.
Gisela Pérez de Acha, Policy Officer, ONG Derechos Digitales, who is working on a similar project that looks at internet legislation in Latin America, was invited to share another regional perspective. She noted that the challenges in Latin America might be slightly different from the MENA region. First, there are authoritative and undemocratic regimes. Second, there are big corporations. The results are impunity and difficulty of having rule of law. She closed her presentation by putting forward a controversial question to be considered when designing a tool that gauges local legislation. Gisela beheld how it is hard to assess the compliance of local legislation with international human rights standards since the latter were never applied on the ground. She added that the compliance with the international human rights standards does not necessarily mean that they are compatible in real life.
The last part of the session focused on questions and comments from the audience. One audience asked about the lesson learned vis-à-vis advocacy. Gisela shared the experience on using Red LatAM tool to do advocacy and stressed how it helped creating an environment and a network of solidarity where a change could start. As she put it, network and mapping information could be put together to push for better collaboration on the regional level.