As mobile operators race to expand their networks in 2016, how can we ensure Myanmar’s newly connected residents know about their digital rights?
Some of the country’s most active voices on technology and human rights came together at Phandeeyar’s office in Yangon in December to tackle this important question. Leaders from Smile, Pandita, Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, International Bar Association, National Network for Education Reform and Phan Thee Eain proposed solutions.
Engage Media, a digital rights and media development organization based in South East Asia, supported this event and Myanmar ICT Development Organization (MIDO), a co-organizer, framed Myanmar’s recent experience with digital rights advocacy and education.
Digital rights are human rights
As more people access the internet, the leaders expressed worry that more people’s rights will be at risk. Even more people will not know that their rights are at risk. The group unanimously expressed an urgent need to educate citizens about their rights online, and to promote a legal framework that would support these rights. But first, one of the most important questions to ask is: do Myanmar users know what digital rights are?
“It’s a myth that digital rights are new rights,” Cheekay Cinco said during the workshop.
“Digital rights are not new rights; they are already the rights that we know and are all born with.” Digital rights, as she explained, are an extension of human rights that mechanisms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have already defined; they just apply to our digital behaviors. In other words, digital rights are the same rights we have as humans in the real world: users should have the right to privacy and the freedom of personal expression.
The group discussed digital rights issues relevant to the Myanmar context, including internet access, privacy and anonymity, safety and security, freedom of expression, and access to knowledge. Leaders shared personal examples of how these issues are directly impacting their work and their lives.
Nearly everyone around the table had an example of how a weak legal system and awareness had led to an arrest or negative experience. These examples, Cheekay shared, are not unique to Myanmar. In fact, they reflect a regional trend that is occurring in Southeast Asia, but also in places like East Africa where governments and companies are criminalizing internet activities.
Fostering a digital rights culture
The participating leaders agreed to support and prioritize activities in three following areas as a result of the workshop: public awareness, advocacy, and practical skill building.
First, they identified the importance of raising public awareness about issues related to digital rights. The largest challenge will be to influence public perception and attitudes about the rights that they have online.
Second, advocacy to promote rights-respecting legal framework was expressed. The first opportunity will like be around submitting comments around consultations related to lawful intercept. Ongoing work will be required to continue to ensure the electronic transactions law is not used to imprison civil society and activists with reason.
Finally, the leaders agreed to develop a plan to build the foundational knowledge and skills related digital rights among community and civil society leaders. Specific project ideas included building on Phandeeyar and MIDO’s work to promote a localized curriculum customized for the Myanmar context around dos and don’ts on social media, and delivering trainings to help users update their privacy and security settings, particularly on Facebook. Since this is a new issue, the CSOs said it’s important to deepen relationships with and learn from the global digital rights community and neighbors in the ASEAN region.
At Phandeeyar, we couldn’t agree more: digital rights should be on everyone’s 2016 agenda. If you are an organization or leader in Myanmar who supports human rights, what are you doing this year to make Myanmar’s digital future safer, and more secure?
By Michael Suantak and Sarah Oh