Today, participants in the South Asian Meeting on the Internet and Freedom of Expression that took place in Kathmandu in early November released a statement reflecting their main areas of concern and shared agreements in each of those areas. Here is the full text of the statement:
We, participants in the South Asian Meeting on the Internet and Freedom of Expression,
Having met in Kathmandu, Nepal, on 2 – 4 November 2011 to deliberate on the state of freedom of expression in our region in the digital age, and coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka,
Considering the importance of social media and the Internet to the growth and advancement of democracy in our region,
Have adopted the following resolution:
Access to the Internet
- We note with great concern that Internet penetration rates around the region remain abysmally low and hover at the most around 25 percent in any South Asian country. As access to the Internet has become an essential precondition for citizens to make full use of their right to freedom of expression in the digital age, we call upon the Governments of South Asia to rectify this situation at the earliest by facilitating and ensuring access to Internet infrastructure that upholds high quality services for all.
- In addition to the provisioning of Internet infrastructure, we recognise the many barriers to equitable access of the Internet in South Asia, including identity, linguistic, cultural and gender based challenges. It is important that government and industry recognise these constraints and work collectively towards strengthening affordable, equitable access for all communities and peoples.
- While markets can play an important role in providing affordable access to infrastructure, markets alone will not be able to ensure that the Internet reaches all communities or to satisfy all needs. For this reason, we urge our Governments to ensure that provisions for open or shared spectrum, as well as for community initiatives to use such spectrum, are included in policy. We call upon the people of South Asia to form and support a South Asian Internet user movement that will advocate for provision of quality Internet access.
- In order to further promote access, including for marginalised groups, we also urge our Governments to, in cooperation with the relevant technical communities, develop, promote and offer at reduced or no cost quality hardware and free and open source software to promote cost-effective Internet access in all South Asian languages, and to also address Internet literacy needs. We urgently request industry to support such Government efforts in all ways possible, including by accepting Unicode as a standard at the earliest.
- In addition to the provisioning of hardware and software as noted above, we also recognise the paucity of local language content on the Internet. Communities must be encouraged to create their own content via text, photographic, audio, animation or a combination of these means. It is only when our people can express themselves fully and freely will they feel part of a national fabric, which in turn contributes to regional stability.
Arbitrary filtering and blocking of content and criminalization of expression
- We note with great concern that the possibilities the Internet allows for free expression are used around the region as an excuse to restrict free speech in unprecedented ways. We remind our Governments that freedom of expression is a corner stone of democracy that is carefully protected by a range of international instruments. In line with their obligations under these instruments, we urge our Governments to ensure that, online as offline, the blocking and filtering of content takes places only under very specific and restricted conditions that have been clearly and precisely established in law prior to the act of blocking or filtering. No blocking without a court order should be allowed to take place. In addition, we urge our Governments to make public lists of all blocked sites without delay.
- We also call upon our Governments, industry and civil society actors to facilitate and promote a culture of tolerance and respect for freedom of expression. Rather than through filtering and blocking, hate speech should be challenged by allowing and encouraging more critical thought to flourish. Freedom of expression should be decriminalised.
- Traditional print and broadcast media, also increasingly publishing, producing and curating content online, should collaborate with online media industries and related communities, including bloggers and citizen journalists, in strengthening and promoting freedom of expression online. This includes the promotion of better awareness of such standard-setting instruments as the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information among industry personnel and journalists, campaigners, bloggers and activists.
- We are concerned that Internet intermediaries, such as social networking sites and Internet service providers, are insufficiently protected in South Asia. We strongly affirm that no Internet intermediary should be subject to liability for content of which they are not the author, until and unless they have refused to act in a timely manner on a court order to take down such content. Any restriction on or removal of content should be based on judicial order as well as fulfil the conditions noted in the section on arbitrary filtering and blocking above.
- We also call for policy guidelines that define the role of ISPs and other intermediaries and their responsibility to their users, with the goal of protecting users’ consumer and human rights.
- We call upon industry to take a proactive stance in ensuring that the consumer and human rights of their users are upheld at all times.
Surveillance, privacy and data protection
- Throughout South Asia, the Internet is increasingly being used as an excuse by Governments to accord to themselves sweeping surveillance powers that are no longer adequately balanced by judicial review. We remind our Governments of their obligation under international instruments to ensure that online communications are delivered to recipients/users sans interference/inspection by the State or third parties. We strongly reaffirm that surveillance should be undertaken as the exception and not the rule, by clearly specified and identified implementing authorities only, guided by transparent surveillance procedures, and with each surveillance action clearly justified as well as restricted in time and backed up by judicial order. Once the surveillance ceases, the person or institution that was under surveillance should be informed of the fact that surveillance has taken place.
- To ensure the highest levels of protection, the privacy of the citizen should be secured through explicit Constitutional guarantee. Policies for the restriction of privacy should be clearly defined and circumscribed, and could include the needs of public interest. States across South Asia should also introduce legislation, with redress mechanisms, on citizens’ data protection with a guarantee of non-disclosure of data. Such legislation should apply to governments and industry alike.
- Industry should ensure that online privacy policies are precise and clear. All Internet users should be made aware about inherent imits to their privacy online, and educated on how to take adequate precautions to safeguard their digital identity and communications.
Governance of the Internet
- We observe with great regret that multistakeholder mechanisms for Internet governance remain non-existent in our region. Recognising both the specific nature of the Internet and its development and the complexity of the many challenges facing its governance, we call upon our Governments to urgently allow for and adopt multistakeholder models of Internet governance as already well-established at the global level, such as at the Internet Governance Forum and ICANN, as well as in some national contexts, such as Brazil. We emphasise that the full involvement of all stakeholders, i.e. government, private sector and civil society, in the governance of the Internet is crucial if we are to ensure that the Internet’s benefits are to reach all in our countries.
JJ Robinson, Editor, Minivan News, the Maldives
Ujjwal Acharya, Chair, Digital Media Committee at the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), Nepal
Anja Kovacs, Internet Democracy Project, India
Aunohita Mojumdar, Contributing Editor (Kabul), Himal South Asia
Ahmed Swapan, VOICE, Bangladesh
Babu Ram Aryal, President, Internet Society, Nepal Chapter.
Geeta Seshu, Journalist and Co-ordinator of at Free Speech Hub at The Hoot, India
Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana, Head of Alliances/Co-Founder, Somewhere In Net, Bangladesh
Nabiha Meher Shaikh, Pakistan
Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Journalist and Lawyer, Sri Lanka
Binay Bohra, President, Internet Service Providers Association of Nepal
Bishakha Datta, Point of View, India
Sharmini Boyle, TV Producer, Sri Lanka
Bytes for All, Pakistan.
Centre for Internet and Society, India