As more people gain access to the Internet, its diversity, reach and value increases. Therefore it follows that a central concern of civil society everywhere must be how affordable, inclusive and free the Internet is. Individuals, institutions and organisations all over the world have embraced the Internet as a platform for discourse, commerce, citizen engagement and, of course, political and social activism. Mobile phones reach even more people and their everyday use is often linked to the Internet in some way or other.
Interaction between citizen and state has also been changed by this growth, in some ways positively, but in others, with new forms of exclusion resulting. E-government services can be inaccessible and alienating to those without the necessary access or literacy. Even the notion of citizenship has been transformed, with many people identifying themselves as citizens of the network (or netizens).
Recognition of the Internet's critical role as “a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” was clearly stated in the June 2011 report of Frank la Rue, ‘Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion to the UN Human Rights Council’. He went on to say:
“The right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an ‘enabler’ of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly. Thus, by acting as a catalyst for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, the internet also facilitates the realisation of a range of other human rights.”
Civil society groups and activists are constantly expanding their use of the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as SMS and mobile apps to organise and advocate for social justice. But this explosion of creativity takes place in the face of growing threats to the free and open nature of the Internet both by states and business interests. In the last few years, issues have emerged that touch on freedom of expression, freedom of association, privacy, censorship, security, access to knowledge and the right to information. These new forms of violations of fundamental human rights result from expedient decisions by states and non-state actors that impact on ICT users in this way, and are similar in intent to violations experienced in traditional media. Interference with these rights is increasing.
Civil society must be involved in how the Internet and other ICTs are regulated and governed, at global, regional and national levels to ensure it remains a tool for empowerment. The next few years will be critical as both states and large corporations try to consolidate control.
- This is a summary of the Association for Progressive Communications’ (APC) contribution to the State of Civil Society 2013: Creating an Enabling Environment for Civil Society. The report was produced by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.