As we slowly climb out of a pandemic that has shaken, challenged and redefined our advocacy priorities in recent years, the latest edition of Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) “ignites a renewed energy to reshape the sense of ‘us’ as a necessary force to imagine and work towards a digital future that we want in a post-pandemic world,” according to APC’s Valeria Betancourt. Exploring the theme of “Digital futures for a post-pandemic world”, Betancourt introduced the latest edition of GISWatch on 29 November at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) during its global launch.
Bringing together a panel of five speakers – all of whom also contributed chapters to the current edition – the launch of GISWatch 2021-2022 was a scintillating discussion facilitated by the project’s long-time editor, Alan Finlay, who engaged the speakers in a series of questions exploring the changes to digital rights priorities brought about by the pandemic. "It was an absolute pleasure to speak to our five guests whose knowledge and insight into how digital rights were effectively ignored by governments in their efforts to control the pandemic and people was impressive,” Finlay remarked. “Their reflections echoed the depth of the edition of GISWatch itself, which captures an important moment in time – there is a lot to learn from it so mistakes aren't repeated.”
Starting off the discussion, Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion of Privacy International noted that as governments were facing unprecedented circumstances in controlling and monitoring the spread of the pandemic, many of the technology-based responses “failed to consider what was necessary at a particular point in time and at different stages of the pandemic.”
That rush to cast aside lessons learned about the privacy risks of technologies introduced, among others, disregard for the regulation of metadata in favour of tracking individuals to enforce lockdown measures. “When the pandemic started, we threw out of the window all of these things that we knew already could have informed and improved decision making,” Pirlot de Corbion observed. Many states pushed for techno-solutionist approaches, which, according to her have created “a lack of human rights due diligence and effective enforcement of existing human rights obligation and responsibilities.”
The impacts, predictably, affect marginalised communities to disproportionate degrees. She cautioned that long-term policies should not be based on flawed assessments and “one size fits all” approaches. This research is further detailed in Privacy International’s GISWatch chapter, “Tech, data and the pandemic: Reflecting for next time.”
The role of civil society in responding to the shifts brought about the pandemic were further discussed by Jamila Venturini of APC member organisation Derechos Digitales, who outlined several key advocacy points, focusing on responses from the global South. “Fostering policies for meaningful connectivity is in the centre of the digital rights agenda more than ever,” she explained, noting in particular the “impacts of digitisation to marginalised groups of people who are disconnected or prevented from having meaningful access.”
A key priority would therefore be to include people who are impacted by digital rights policies in decision-making spaces on national, regional and global levels. Those issues are explored in depth in the GISWatch chapter, “Another look at internet regulation: Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Examining contact tracing apps through the framework of public interest technologies, Paola Ricaurte Quijano of Tecnológico de Monterrey, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and Tierra Común also noted that technology responses to the health crisis in Latin America were largely improvised. The result, she explained, is that “the pandemic highlighted the lack of digital policies, preparedness and infrastructure, and the widespread tendency to adopt private solutions to address the emergency.”
The decisions made by governments to develop and use certain types of technology without adequate consideration of potential harm on people’s rights highlighted what Ricuarte describes as “a trend associated with a lack of understanding of technology as a matter of public interest.” Examining responses through this lens is detailed in the chapter, “Getting ready for the next pandemic: Public interest technologies in Latin America.”
While states were rushing to deal with the health crisis, many public-private partnerships were established to implement digital technologies during the pandemic. APC associate Gayatri Khandhadai from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre discussed how public trust has been eroded in these partnerships due to the numerous rights violations that occurred as a result. “These concerns became more augmented by the fact that we witnessed large-scale spread of deliberate misinformation on messaging applications,” Khandhadai added.
Many questions were raised as people saw their data abused, mishandled and compromised by private companies that took advantage of the crisis by deploying harmful technology-driven solutions. “We did not know what is being collected, how it was being used, who had access to it, what happens if there was a violation,” Khandhadai stated. “Is there going to be oversight? Are there going to be consequences? Is there a mitigation strategy in place? We didn't know any of that. In my opinion, I don't think we still know the answer to many of those questions.” These issues are analysed in the GISWatch chapter, “The rights approach: Pushing back against opaque public-private partnerships.”
Shifting the discussion to the question of intellectual property (IP), Deepika Yadav of the Digital Trade Alliance talked about a joint proposal drafted by India and South Africa called the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver. As outlined in Yadav’s research, “the waiver asked that all IP rights for technologies that are important to develop vaccines, medicine, equipment and kits be waived until ‘the majority of the world's population has developed immunity.’”
What happened in reality, Yadav explained, is that the countries making promises to develop vaccines as a readily-available global public good were in fact generating “a narrative of broken promises,” resulting in unequal vaccine distribution (especially between the North and South) and resulting in gross inequality and devastating consequences. More information is detailed in the GISWatch chapter, “Advocacy in times of TRIPS waiver.”
Having examined the theme through multiple angles, the launch was wrapped up with closing remarks by APC executive director, Chat Garcia Ramilo. who offered a hopeful note in the face of the challenges of recent years, explaining the importance of alliances in our ability to make a difference. “This is the hope,” she said, “to actually create these alliances and not only to document them, but to use them and strengthen advocacies.”
This call was echoed by Betancourt, who noted that “a nuanced approach to advocacy will be essential to open multiple ways to bring about positive change.”
The 2021-2022 edition of GISWatch is now available for digital download in multiple formats. Containing 13 thematic report and 36 country and regional reports, it focuses on responses to some of the fundamental questions brought by the pandemic to inform civil society’s advocacy around digital technology issues and their potential to shape future horizons. Read GISWatch 2021-2022 on “Digital futures for a post-pandemic world” here.
The launch is available for viewing on the IGF YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPrDceOY9-I