Why Should Human Rights Funders Care About Digital Security?

Meerim Ilyas and Jennifer Radloff

Taken at FPI workshop. Photocredit: genderIT.org

At a recent gathering of women human rights defenders from countries with unprecedented levels of backlash against civil society groups, something out of the ordinary happened. At this timely meeting, organized by Mama Cash, all of us, participants and organizers alike, affirmed that digital security was a critical agenda item. We all wholeheartedly believed that digital security was a must-have in our activist work. It is something that everyone talks about; a buzzword and an equivocal concept that is either conceived to be individually understood (even when it is not) or is avoided entirely, whenever possible. However, for most women activists in the room, avoiding digital security was no longer a viable option

Magic happened that day. Thanks to the Association for Progressive Communications, digital security training turned into an invigorating, hilarious, theatrical stage where every person impersonated a particular component of the Internet, exploring its possibilities and limitations. We discussed what makes encryption possible, and why it is relevant. We mimed, we laughed, and we danced, because, really, what’s the point of revolution if we can’t dance?

Yet, for many activists, the ability to integrate and implement digital security practices following a stand-alone training is limited, and it is not difficult to understand why. Human rights defenders are already operating under conditions of severe pressure, receiving frequent threats, and have very few financial resources. Digital security requires behavioral changes, which in turn demands time, patience, emotional space, and daily practice. In short, to ensure that activists are practicing even basic digital security, they need a comprehensive, holistic approach to security, which addresses all aspects of their lives and examines how their activism impacts their well-being and vice versa. In other words, digital security must be integrated within activists’ sense of safety overall, just as digital security threats do not exist separately from physical and emotional threats.

…digital security threats do not exist separately from physical and emotional threats.

There is more to digital security than the technical skills of encryption, passwords, safe data transfers, and knowledge of policies around privacy rights and freedom of expression. Digital security entails our whole existence online, our relationship with social media, our presence in these spaces, and implications of our digital footprint. For many human rights defenders this is a central notion because of the increasing importance of their online activism due to heightened limitations in physical spaces. In fact, for many, especially for women and LGBTIQ activists, being present online is the ONLY option.

For many LGBTIQ groups in Indonesia, organizing a meeting on Facebook is the only way they can communicate and strategize, even though it is not the safest option. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, for young women, the very act of creating a profile online and expressing an opinion that does not agree with patriarchal norms challenges the status quo so much so that they can be attacked both online or physically and possibly even killed. The active use of an array of online tools presents a particular conundrum that we all face today – our impulsive engagement with the internet is occurring at a much faster rate than our understanding of our safety, privacy, and implications online. For activists, and especially women and LGBTIQ people, these issues can become a matter of life and death.

The internet is a transformative space for activists, connecting struggles, and providing spaces for advocacy, support and movement building. It also mirrors the offline world as it is rife with misogynistic and homophobic attacks. Our relationship with technology can be both transformative and an experience of violation. As activists, as women, and as LGBTIQ we have the agency and the capacity to make decisions regarding our bodies, minds, and lives in any of the spaces we live in, be they online or offline.

That is why in 2014 and 2015 APC brought together over 80 participants from six continents comprising gender and women’s rights activists, LGBTIQ movements, internet and technology rights organizations, and human rights advocates. APC wanted to collectively share struggles, find connections and talk and strategize around the internet: the politics of it, what it means for women, online violence against women and the nature of the harms that we experience every day, and critically, what kind of internet we want to build. One of the outcomes of these convenings is an evolving document with 17 Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPI) – critical yet proactive in creating a feminist internet.

The Feminist Principles of the Internet are something donors need to be cognizant of – “Some people say that we are good at expressing what we don’t want but not at expressing what we do want. But now we can say: This is what we want. This is the feminist internet that we want!” Supporting women’s rights work cannot be done without taking into account the ubiquity of the internet, the exclusion of many women for multiple reasons, the disconnect between human rights principles offline and online, and the documented struggles of women and LGBTIQ activists using online spaces and being systematically harassed, trolled and ultimately forced offline.

The FPI’s is a roadmap, an evolving, diverse and responsive guide for harnessing the internet to fight for women’s rights, so we can collectively contribute to the global movement to dismantle patriarchy in all the spaces we inhabit.

The magic of APC organized digital security training also surfaced sobering, heartbreaking experiences faced by activists in their online and offline work.Connecting the online risks to offline realities, and mapping out the online threats and fears faced by women human rights defenders in the room in various contexts helped to prioritize and examine strategies and tools to build resilience, creative use of technology, and the confidence to experiment.

Women at Radio Concha booth at the Feminist eXchange Hub at the 2016 AWID Forum. This image was shared as part of 16 Days campaign action (2016) sharing photos of women and girls using tech. Photo by Jennifer Radloff

Fortunately, some significant efforts to address online activism and digital security are already taking place on the global scale. One such space is The Internet Freedom Forum – created to explore activist responses to digital security. Feminist internet rights activists host sessions on online gender-based violence and feminist digital safety responses. While there are now many projects working on digital security training, very few of these projects are developed in ways that can be adapted to the diverse lived experiences of their participants. Women’s rights activists have expressed feelings of disempowerment when digital security training provides a litany of tools but does not sufficiently build capacity to create safe spaces online.

For traditional funders of human rights issues, understanding of how digital security is relevant may not be intuitive or easily understood. Funding for physical security needs, such as evacuation, office security and organizational planning around potential threats is already limited. We often see cases where dangerous work in hostile conditions was expected from activists, but no funding was provided for basic security. Digital security has become an increasingly important aspect of security needs for activists and requires a nuanced understanding of online safety for women and LGBTIQ activists. Within Urgent Action Fund’s rapid response grantmaking, we also learned that there is a vast diversity around capacities, skills, access to technology and local legislation, all of which can further challenge donor ability to respond in a timely and sustainable manner. As such, there is a clear need for open collaboration between human rights funders, women’s funds, and feminist organizations and activists to continue addressing issues around digital security.

About Jennifer Radloff (@jen_ct)

Jennifer Radloff is the capacity building coordinator in APC’s Women’s Rights Programme. She is a feminist information activist who loves nature, running, poetry, clay, ocean, life stories and believes that change can happen.

Meerim Ilyas (@MeerimKG)

Meerim Ilyas is a Senior Program Officer at the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights and Board Member for Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).