The Value of Multi-Stakeholder Efforts in Preserving Digital Rights during COVID-19

11.20.2020 | Adam Sachs

Modern democracy and vibrant markets require an online space where citizens can freely engage with one another socially, economically, and politically. However, the expanded reliance on the internet, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to a corresponding rise in efforts led by governments from authoritarian states and declining democracies to curb digital rights.

As Freedom House observes, “The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. For the 10th consecutive year, users have experienced an overall deterioration in their rights, and the phenomenon is contributing to a broader crisis for democracy worldwide.”

As governments increasingly feel the pressure to adopt new laws and policies that respond to the health crisis, local business communities, civil society organizations, and independent media across the globe have also seen a rise in oppressive laws and policies that restrict internet freedom and chip away at democratic norms. For instance, governments in Central and Southeast Europe passed emergency COVID-19 legislation which led to a drastic increase in digital rights violations.

In the context of the Global South, weak governance structures and limited constitutional protections create opportunities for governments to easily deploy policies or tactics that infringe on core digital rights (either knowingly or unknowingly).

According to the State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2020 report, since the pandemic, “several [African] countries adopted retrogressive measures that were not in line with international human rights law.” For example, the widespread adoption of contact tracing applications that, without robust data privacy protection laws, can double as a tool to monitor citizen movements. Governments have also increasingly utilized internet shutdowns to quell protests and restrict speech, limiting access to vital health information and preventing businesses from maintaining operations online. These alarming trends are likely to continue without the active engagement of diverse stakeholder groups in developing norms and standards on how a democratic internet should function.

More than ever before, there is a need for continuous multi-stakeholder dialogues that shape the norms and standards needed to preserve internet freedom. To support this goal, CIPE, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) facilitate the Open Internet for Democracy Initiative (the Initiative), a collaborative effort to enhance the capacity of digital rights advocates across the Global South to support individuals from private sector, civic, and media organizations in advocating for digital rights. Through this Initiative, CIPE, NDI, and CIMA developed resources such as the Democratic Principles for an Open Internet and the Open Internet for Democracy Advocacy Playbook that help facilitate multi-stakeholder engagement and guide the development of policy reforms protecting internet freedoms of all citizens.

The Initiative also involves the Open Internet for Democracy Leaders Program, a non-resident leadership program that empowers emerging leaders from across the globe to build their advocacy and organizing skills. Through this program, local digital rights advocates organized multi-stakeholder policy conversations in countries such as Lesotho and Nigeria to raise digital rights awareness and build unified advocacy coalitions that promote internet freedom.

CIPE also supported the Open Internet Leaders to actively participate in international fora focused on internet freedom, such as RightsCon and the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (UN IGF), where global norms and standards on the internet are shaped. In one recent example, CIPE organized a session at the 2020 UN IGF, which examined how the global community can help ensure inclusive, digitally-enabled economic growth in the post-COVID-19 era. The session featured past Open Internet Leaders from Uganda and the Philippines, as well as the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies, Rainer Heufers, and the Senior Policy Director, Business at Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Nicole Primmer.

COVID-19 has permanently changed our lives in many ways. The democratic internet must not be another tragic casualty of this pandemic. Therefore, diverse stakeholder groups must work together to foster the exchange of ideas, network, and jointly advocate for the preservation of democratic and economic freedoms online during and after the pandemic.