To protect freedom of expression and access to information globally, it's crucial to understand the multifaceted nature of digital participation – from technical aspects to the social, economic and regulatory context.
In an increasingly digital world, online participation has fast become a crucial marker for assessing individual freedom of expression and access to information across the globe. In response, the #speakup barometer project evaluated digital participation in eight different countries across five specific areas (access, society, media and journalism, innovation, digital rights), interviewing over 100 experts and uncovering the key drivers and barriers to digital participation today. As SMEX’s Mohammad Najem – one of the barometer’s experts – argues, “we see digital rights as human rights. So, we want to make sure that human rights are sustained online as much as offline.” Similarly, Berhan Taye, who leads AccessNow’s #KeepItOn campaign, believes that “participation online means that you're able to access information. And for any functional democracy, access to information is one of the basic rights and services.” By investigating online inclusion in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Ukraine, Colombia, Pakistan, Lebanon and Myanmar, the #speakup barometer was able to expose the multifaceted reality of digital participation worldwide. Supporting digital inclusion – and thus freedom of expression and access to information online – is not just about improving technology and increasing Internet penetration, but also about working within specific social, economic and regulatory contexts to make sure that as many people as possible are able to participate and thrive in the digital world.
The single greatest barrier to digital participation remains the rural-urban divide. In all eight countries surveyed as part of the #speakup barometer, improvements to digital infrastructure remain the purview of urban areas, while rural areas struggle with poor general infrastructure (electricity etc.) and a difficult investment environment. Given the lack of population density and low usage rates in rural areas, corporate investment is often unlikely to be profitable, leading to weak network infrastructure and a lack of competition between providers, which could then also drive down prices. Furthermore, the emphasis on smartphones over desktop and laptop computers – which are both more expensive and harder to hook up to existing digital infrastructure – means that many people are unable to participate in the digital economy beyond the level of user, since “if you want to learn about design and programming, you can’t do it on your phone,” according to Maureen Moraa of the Tunapanda Institute, Kenya. Conversely, rural areas are often also the sites of the greatest innovation in access. One pilot project in southwest Colombia, for example, is improving network connectivity for a municipality with some 1,000 inhabitants through mesh antennas used for long-range WiFi networks and routers operating with free software. National governments remain the greatest driver of access to digital participation by directly investing in digital networks, or indirectly writing legislation that encourages private investments in the sector, although their motivation is often more economic than rights-based. In a number of countries, telecommunications are firmly in state hands and subject to strict controls, as well as potential Internet shutdowns.
On the flipside, the barometer’s society cluster makes clear how crucial civil society organizations and individual demands for change are for supporting and encouraging digital participation. Governments and companies must take steps, for example, to address gender inequality online by integrating gender equality targets and key performance indicators into policies, plans and budgets aimed at prioritizing the involvement of women and rural communities. Meanwhile, civil society organizations are already using the Internet as a crucial tool for expanding the reach of their campaigns, enhancing awareness and creating safer spaces online. Similarly, generation digital is shifting the discourse online as “young people are becoming bolder and bolder,” in their demands for both greater digitalization and political and social change in their countries, according to Impact Hub’s William Senyo. Civil society is also at the forefront of translating and producing content into local languages, as well as combatting fake news, harassment and discrimination online. Within this cluster, governments present a major barrier to digital participation insofar as they are often responsible for restrictive legislation, surveillance and other restrictions, which cause many people to self-censor online, choosing to use the Internet for entertainment and personal communication instead of commenting on political and social issues. Furthermore, multi-national social media platforms are growing more powerful every day, leading to the danger of “digital colonialism” which not only threatens the decentralization of the Internet, but also contributes to throttling creativity, stymying the development of local solutions and the imposition of Western principles and values.
The dominance of social media platforms also has an effect on digital participation within the context of the media and journalism cluster. In many countries, customers can use Facebook and WhatsApp without data restrictions, making these providers the dominant news providers, since other services require the purchase of mobile data. Simultaneously, major national television broadcasters and news publishers use these platforms to disseminate their often uncritical reporting of those in power, while also monopolizing the media budgets of more traditional media outlets – or even outright owning the majority of media houses in a given country. Low media and digital literacy is a further barrier to the creation of a vibrant online media landscape online. Conversely, the low cost of entry for social media entrepreneurs, new media journalists and bloggers is often a major driver for change online, as they are often able to respond quickly to changing political realities, provide alternative sources of information, give voice to discriminated minorities and expand media programs to out-of-reach areas. When pro-Russian protests began in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in spring 2014, Oleksander Anchyshkyn started tweeting, posting information on pro-Russian actions. Today, he has 10,300 followers and his goal is to hold local government accountable. “I want to tell people about problems, so that the authorities can act on them,” says Anchyshkyn, who has since run for the local council of his hometown. Although new online media outlets have to survive with fewer staff who often work in precarious conditions, they frequently take an investigative approach as well as engaging in data journalism.
New online media outlets are also better able to take advantage of innovations online, such as crowdfunding initiatives, which strengthen their independence from state and corporate advertising budgets (and influence) and give smaller enterprises a fighting chance. That being said, a major barrier for tech startups and female-run enterprises, in particular, is finding consistent funding close to home as state and international NGO funding is often project-based and sporadic. “MiMedellin,” for example, was an open innovation and citizen collaboration platform set up in 2013 which won the Inter-American Award for Innovation for Effective Public Management from the Organization of American States (OAS), which now lies dormant for lack of permanent public engagement. Although digital participation and innovation are inherently linked insofar as online innovation can create more opportunities for digital participation, the ability to innovate is often dependent on precarious infrastructure and unreliable Internet connections. The threat of shutdowns also severely limits many startups and small entrepreneurs from entering the market. That being said, digital is nonetheless “radically changing what we know. People can now innovate with problems and solve problems which could not be solved before,” according to pulse.fm product lead Ibukun Onitiju, creating a major motivator for continued engagement with the digital sphere. In Kenya, Internet researcher Margaret Nyambura says it was the mobile money service M-Pesa that was the catalyst, making urban and rural Kenyans excited about the possibilities of the Internet. “People want to be connected to M-Pesa, which probably means you need to invest in a phone. And in the process, other things come in,” she said.
In the final cluster, digital rights, the #speakup barometer project investigated the status of digital rights in the countries surveyed. Here too, the multifaceted nature of digital participation became clear: While certain countries have enshrined freedom of speech as a constitutional right, most have not officially extended that legal framework into the digital sphere to guarantee citizen’s fundamental rights everywhere. Other countries have even actively curtailed the ability of individuals to express themselves online. A further barrier to digital participation are strict copyright laws, the threat of government surveillance of online spaces, and overly broad or opaque applications of Internet law, which force people to self-censor or curtail their activities online. Nonetheless, digital rights are also a crucial driver and rallying cry for digital activists fighting to end Internet shutdowns and challenge the constitutionality of provisions in strict cybercrime and censorship laws.
Ultimately, the single greatest driver for digital participation is the individuals and organizations within civil society who have identified a problem – or a solution – and are striving to increase freedom of expression and access to information in their cities, regions and countries. While state action (or inaction) is often imperative, the 100 #speakup barometer experts make it apparent how digital rights are truly human rights and that all elements of society must come together in order to sustain digital participation worldwide.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer