WASHINGTON: The struggle is to create room for the majority in the virtual space dominated by technology companies and governments, argued Nighat Dad, a Pakistani digital rights activist who participated in this week’s US democracy summit that Pakistan did not officially attend.
“It’s really important that … we focus on the experiences of marginalised groups — young women and girls, female journalists, women human rights defenders, activists — when we talk about democracy in the digital age,” said Ms Dad while speaking at a session, chaired by US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, on Advancing Democracy and Internet Freedom in a Digital Age.
Pakistan’s absence, although not felt at the summit, was discussed at a US State Department briefing on Thursday when a journalist asked the acting spokesperson, Vedant Patel, to comment on Islamabad’s decision to stay out. “Well, we’re certainly sorry that Pakistan chose not to participate. But it is a sovereign state, and it is one that can make decisions for itself,” Mr Patel added.
However, he made it clear that Islamabad’s absence from the summit would not affect bilateral relations. “This certainly does not change our willingness to continue to work with Pakistan,” he said, noting that the US and Pakistan work together on a broad range of issues.
State Dept spox says Islamabad’s absence won’t affect bilateral relations
“We continue to engage with them on issues surrounding democracy, human rights, including freedom of religion, belief, (and) there’s an important security partnership as well,” he said.
And this engagement was on display at the summit as well where Secretary Blinken showed much interest in Ms Dad’s presentation, noting that she was working to “make sure that women and girls, other marginalised communities are able to access technology and use it to thrive”.
Ms Dad is executive director of Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), a women-led advocacy organisation focusing on information and communications technologies, digital governance, and cyber harassment. She is also a member of Meta’s Oversight Board, which makes decisions regarding content moderation on Facebook and Instagram.
Young women and girls’ “access to technologies and internet, can be a liberating (experience) but can also (expose them to) abuse and violence, not only online but offline as well,” she said.
Ms Dad also underlined the role of digital technologies and the internet “in both advancing democracies and undermining institutions integral to a free democratic space.”
She noted that two main stakeholders were dominating the virtual space: governments and tech companies and platforms. The governments, she said, were scrambling to acquire technologies and pass laws that would allow them to control the internet and dominate the pervasive narratives in these spaces.
The powerful platforms, she added, were focused on expanding their profit margins and on perpetuating their control over content and data. “We have seen that they are mostly unaccountable to governments and the users who should be the center of the conversation in these spaces,” Ms Dad said.
Highlighting her experience in Pakistan, she said: “The loss of control over the information we consume and who gets to speak has been troubling for governments with long histories of interrupted and weak democratic rule.”
“Even in countries where the rule of law is strong, they struggle to come up with really good regulations that respect the international human rights framework.”
She pointed out that civil society organisations across the world had come up with local solutions to the problems that users confront in space. “These local solutions need to be taken into account in the global conversations,” she added.
Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2023
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