Community Projects Development Growing the Internet Human Rights

Experiencing the Internet’s Role in Community Empowerment

Taking advantage of the fact that Internet Society’s CEO, Kathy Brown, and I were both in India last month, we visited one of our Wireless for Communities (W4C) sites in Tilonia, located in Rajasthan state.

Located some 380km from Delhi in a rural location, the W4C Tilonia site is based at the Barefoot College campus, and is a self-reliant model village – from generating their own solar electricity to sustainable water harvesting. They also run a community education programme teaching people from around the world skills to help them empower their local communities.

The W4C programme has been running since 2010 and it adopts a holistic approach to empowering rural communities with digital skills and tools. Establishing W4C in Tilonia was a natural meeting of the two programmes.

The impact was plain to see. Both the old and new campuses of Barefoot College in Tilonia are now linked to each other by point-to-point WiFi, and each campus has a local WiFi network that connects everything from schools to community radio stations. The administration of the campus has now gone paperless – with all work being done online. The community education programme uses Internet and ICT technology extensively and it was amazing to see tablet computers and large screen TVs being used to teach electronic kit assembly to the ‘Solar Mamas’. These Solar Mamas keep in touch with family back home using Internet messaging apps. The Internet truly permeates through everything at Barefoot College.

One of the most touching scenes was seeing a classroom full of young girls during their midday break all queuing up in an orderly fashion to get their 10 minutes each at a computer. The wonder and curiosity in their eyes – and their patience waiting for their turn – was truly remarkable. And all the more reason, that we must make the Internet of Opportunity available to everyone, everywhere.

You can follow Kathy and my journey to W4C Tilonia on storify here and there is a video of our visit here.

Community Projects Growing the Internet Human Rights Internet Governance Privacy

Youth aren’t the future. We’re the present.

It’s weird when you think about it. More than any other demographic, people under the age of 25 spend all our time online. We’re the first generation to grow up with the Internet, and we use it for everything; communication, recreation, work, art. And yet, when it comes to Internet governance, we’re almost entirely absent from the conversation.

That’s why myself and a few like-minded folks from across Latin America started the Youth Observatory. The Youth Observatory is a special interest group within ISOC meant to both make sure youth voices are heard in governance discussions and explain the importance of Internet governance to other young people.

When I was younger, I got this feeling that everything about privacy and security was aimed at other people’s problems. Everybody was talking to me as if I was 50 years-old, and I should care about my credit card. But my problems were much more like, who’s seen my pictures on Facebook. That’s where we’re trying to start the privacy conversation, not only for our 20-something peers but for the teens who are navigating adolescence in a continuously connected world.

We want to start the conversation with 15 year-olds by saying ‘Hey buddy, you know, you’re there on the Internet the whole day. Imagine yourself without WhatsApp. Imagine somebody from Facebook reading your messages to your girlfriend or your friends. And you cannot stop it; you don’t understand how the policy works.’ When you’re 15, you feel like having some independence and being alone. So it’s important to make them understand that you know, this privacy can be violated. Especially if we don’t get our opinions heard, and speak our minds on how this should be protected.

As my colleague Carlos Guerrero points out, it’s not just that young people need to know more about Internet governance. Internet Governance organizations also need to hear more from young people. 

“Youth voices are really important in this discussion because we have a different point of view of the things,” he says. “This point of view is new and is free of the past. That’s why we think that it’s really important to bring more youth voices to the discussion because we are bringing the new point of view of the things in the conversation.”

The Youth Observatory isn’t just about governance, though. It’s also about making sure people have the skills to deal with the problems they face in online in their day-to-day lives. In the case of young women, that means being able to fight back against harassment.

That’s why my colleague Angie Contreras also wants to make sure we focus on getting young women the informational skills to push back against digital violence.

“It’s the age of information on the Internet,” she says. “And specifically in social networks, and so it’s really important to increase informatic skills, not only for women but for all marginalized people that use the Internet and social networks, to make the Internet a place with no discrimination. To make it a place where people won’t be bullied.”

Right now, the Youth Observatory is only focused on Latin America. Language is a barrier, and just trying to get established in two languages, Spanish and Portuguese, is a challenge. Once we’re more established in the region, though, we’ll just jump and go global.

As Carlos so wisely put it, youth isn’t just the future. We’re the present. And we’re not just trying to make a better online tomorrow for young people; we’re trying to make a better today.

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Pakistan’s girls and the future of the local technology industry

The Internet has brought a whole new world of information and enablement for us,” said Shafiq Khalid, a 12-year-old student in Islamabad, Pakistan. “My mother is happy I’m sharing delicious recipes with her.”

Khalid is one of the hundreds of girls participating in a programme offered by the Pakistan Social Association (PSA) and supported by local Internet Society’s chapter members that gives young rural girls basic training in computer and Internet use. As chapter developer manager for the Internet Society, I had a chance to talk to some of the many girls impacted by this project.

“Women are nearly 53% of our population, and most of them are in villages,” explained Ammar Jaffri, president of PSA and Internet Society Pakistan Islamabad Chapter member. “If we train one girl, she will bring change in her entire family, especially when educating her own children.”

By training one girl, we can bring change in her entire family, especially when educating her own children. Pakistan Social Association

Since 2012, 15 community leaders in villages around Islamabad were prepared as multipliers and given the tools to educate 20 young girls each. Last April 25th, the final phase of the training was celebrated during ICT [Information and Communications Technology] for Girls day. Around 300 girls came together to receive their certification after successfully completing their exams. The hope is that these girls continue to invest in their education and eventually move into the ICT industry.

“It’s an amazing platform – to be able to receive so much information and knowledge!” said 14-year-old student Qurat-ul-Ain Abbasi. “We are quite new to the Internet world, but we would like to receive more training and courses so we can get the most out of it.”

Technology and the gender gap

Getting rural students, especially the girls, involved and comfortable with computers and the Internet early is crucial for increasing diversity in the ICT industry, as well as the greater online community.

Even more important, the initiative bravely and directly addresses gender inequality, one of the country’s most pressing social issues. “After the encouragement from the success of ICTs for Girls Day, we are planning to expand the training to 20,000 girls,” said Jaffri. “We intend to implement this project in all rural parts of Pakistan as a pilot. This would help to address gender inequality in Pakistan and set a trend for others to follow.”

Since 2012, 15 community leaders in villages around Islamabad were prepared as multipliers and given the tools to educate 20 young girls each. Pakistan Social Association

Watching these girls browsing around the Internet and making an effort to learn more with each click was a very special moment. The shining replies I got while seeking their interviews made me understand and value even further our commitment to keeping the Internet as open, free and accessible platform for human development.

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Human Rights Day: 20 years of the Internet and Human Rights

The Internet’s relationship with human rights can tentatively be traced back to the very foundations of this global network, with the creation of the Internet Protocol suite (TCP/IP) some 40 years ago.

Although the Internet’s original architects did not intentionally conceive the Internet as a tool to advance human rights, the principles they built into its design embody the ideals of freedom of expression; one could almost read Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the freedom to share, receive and impart information and ideas across frontiers) as a definition of the Internet, even though it was written a quarter of a century before the invention of the Internet Protocol (see Markus Kummer’s Human Rights Council statement).

December 10th marks traditional celebrations for Human Rights Day. This year the focus will be on the 20th Anniversary of the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, highlighting key human rights achievements of the past two decades.

This is also a great opportunity to look back at key Internet developments, in the Internet’s short history, that have impacted the exercise of fundamental rights in a networked world.

Open standards to limitless innovation

On the technological side, open Internet standards have provided the building blocks for the network’s generative nature, unlocking the limitless potential of decentralised innovation and creativity in new applications and services.

Building upon this foundation, new technologies and applications are continuously emerging that impact people’s basic freedoms, such as access to and sharing of information (e.g. emails, VoIP, instant chat, blogs), freedom of peaceful association (e.g. social networks, forums) or access to knowledge and cultural content (e.g. Wikipedia).

Expanding access

But these achievements would be rather meaningless if the Internet’s benefits were restricted to a sub-set of people. Fortunately, much progress has taken place in the past few years to expand Internet access around the world. The recently launched 2013 Web Index indicates that “the number of internet users worldwide has more than doubled since WSIS [World Summit on the Information Society], from 16 percent of the global population in 2005 to 39 percent in 2013″.

Taking the example of Africa, starting with the single SEACOM cable connecting West Africa in 1999, there are now 13 major cable connecting Sub-saharan and Mediterranean Africa. Most of them have gone online in the past three years. This has been a major development for Internet access in Africa, supported, among other elements, by the increasing use of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) to optimize traffic and foster more efficient and cheaper connections.

Challenges for the future

As great as the achievements are, many challenges remain. The greater part of the world still has no access to the Internet. According to A4AI’s “Affordability Index”, for those living on less than US$2/day, entry-level broadband costs an average of 40% of monthly income, and in many countries this figure exceeds 80% or 100%. As a consequence, billions cannot afford to connect to the network, therefore limiting the economic and social that access could promote. The Internet Society is working with partners around the globe to increase Internet infrastructure through its development work.

The story doesn’t end there, unfortunately. Openness can be double-edged: the same technology that is used to foster free expression can also be used to repress it. Suspension of Internet access, delaying traffic, bandwidth capping, filtering of websites and/or of their content, surveillance of online activities and invasion of privacy are but few of the measures which threaten both the Internet’s functionality and its ability to promote the exercise of fundamental rights online.

For example, the 2013 Web Index found that 94% of countries in its sample survey do not meet best practice standards for checks and balances on government interception of electronic communications. Adequately meeting users’ expectations of privacy on the Internet will remain a key challenge going forward.

Keep the Internet strong

The Internet is basically what we make of it: it reflects our society, with its bright and darker aspects. An Internet which is open and collaborative is the starting point to make it stronger as a platform for human rights.

It is our collective responsibility – users, governments, engineers, companies – to reduce the Internet’s downsides and to optimise it as a positive force in our economic activities, social interactions and political participation.

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