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Institutional Support & Eco System for Digital Rights

The need for institutional support for protection of digital rights in developing countries with restrictions on civil society


Due to the large and diverse amount of sessions at RightsCon Manila, and proximity we decided to have of our team members attend the event, to cover different areas relevant to our work. My fellow colleagues Michael and Sze Ming will write about different topics to this post. This post will cover some concerns I raised about the need for institutional support for eco-system of civil rights organizations in countries with restrictions on civil society and the need for digital rights specific NGO.

Institutional Support Needed

At 8th Annual Forum of Emerging Leaders in Asian Journalism in 2013 I showed a slide to describe challenges to data journalists, by comparing the institutional capacity of local civil society organizations versus their American counterparts. The point was that in order to research and push for data in different areas, a country needs to have strong civil society institutions to not only do research or lobby for data from government to be made open, but also to ensure that the rights of these civil society organizations and media are protected. This disparity still holds true. Sinar Project are trying to do for tech parliamentary monitoring with 4 people, what their US counterparts are doing with over 40 full time staff, while taking on additional roles of missing institutions.

More on the capacities in a bit, but let's cover the eco-system first. While a lot of the focus at RightsCon was on various tools & methods to protect against surveillance, privacy and so on, in the sessions I attended not much was discussed about how if you have strong democratic institutions to act as a check and balance on civil and human rights in real space, the more extreme situations to protect politically persecuted groups on the Internet would not arise in the first place.

A healthy democratic country should have strong civil society organizations that constantly keep watch and protect civil liberties, media freedom, transparency & corruption and also parliamentary/government monitoring. In current world of digital and Internet rights, there should also be an organization specific to this area like EFF in respective countries. Each supports the work of the other.

Sinar Project would not be able to do it's work well, if there were no civil liberties NGOs like MCCHR, Lawyers for Liberty or SUARAM to ensure that we can work on transparent government knowing that should our work somehow be construed as seditious that we have lawyers willing to defend civil liberties. Similarly without strong independent media and organizations supporting media freedom, no journalists would cover our work which may deem to be critical of current government. Similar arguments could be made for support of other rights groups covering rights for women, freedom of expression, indigenous people, LGBT and more.

MCCHR fellow civil society organization civic space, provides space for Sinar Project to hold discussions and small workshops

In weak democracies like Malaysia, where there are curbs on civil society rights organizations, it is important that key civil society organizations are provided institutional funding to grow in order to do their work well and be sustainable. It is difficult to do our work effectively on small project grants. Most of these grants are short term, and often do not cover institutional costs such as office, administrative and other costs. Organizations from other countries also raised this problem, it is hard to work on rights issues when you're not only under threat of persecution, but also not sure about whether you have income the next month. As one of our donors raised, some of us do eventually want to or have families too. You also need to build capacities of staff, all the experience, networks and collaborations between people are lost if they cannot continue to build on their work.

It is hard to implement projects or research well, if you have to constantly depend on short term project staff, who may not be available and you're unsure when funding opportunities would be successful. The resource person that would be ideal for a project, may have to take another job and be unavailable even if a short term grant application was successful. This high turnover due to uncertainty of short term grants also hinders the growth of rights organizations.

The funding costs for institutions even in more developed higher living cost countries like Malaysia are relatively small. USD200,000 per year is enough to cover institutional costs including full time staff of 5 highly qualified professionals who in turn can work on building long term plans for sustainability. Institutionally funding 4-5 key organizations for a few years in a country could fundamentally affect the protection of digital and Internet rights for the better, versus just digital protection tools & training for each one or small short term projects.

The need for digital rights specific institution in Malaysia (possibly elsewhere in South East Asia)

At an Open Data and Privacy session, I learned something that as a transparency organization fighting for open government I didn't think about enough, that the data we're gathering to make government more accountable might actually cause harm to groups and communities we are supposed to be helping. For example, individuals could lose their job or communities persecuted if they could be identified as sources for data that could be interpreted as critical of government. Conversely, stronger privacy laws in turn could be used to persecute those working to uncover the trail of people involved in government corruption.

Why the need for EFF like organization, and shouldn't women's groups or other civil rights groups lead this effort on digital rights?

As an example, digital rights driven initiative by Sinar Project, would shape the digital rights agenda towards transparency and access, and not privacy. We would also not cover other digital rights concerns such as software patents, Technical Protection Measures and other issues not related to open government and parliamentary monitoring. It would also be less likely general human rights organizations would also have the capacity to deal with reviewing the legal implications of legislation on digital rights, especially when it involves IPR issues or highly technical implementations.

Sinar Project team with Richard Stallman learning about importance on protecting digital freedoms

As a step here at Sinar in light of this, we are planning incubate an independent project on digital rights with a view that it would eventually become an independent organization to lead digital rights protection efforts in Malaysia.

Funding support

Travel to RightsCon would not be possible without the generous support of ISIF & institutional support of Sinar Project by SEATTI

About the Author - Khairil Yusof

 PGP ID:  0x889164CB

Khairil Yusof

Coordinates project implementations, funding, engagement and overall direction of Sinar Project. Works on transparency initiatives involving data modeling and relationships between people, organizations and contracts. He also conducts training to help build technical capacity for other civil society organizations.

Used to worked on the International Open Source Network project as part of the UNDP Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme promoting open source, open standards and open content to developing countries in this region.

Not as skilled in languages as his fellow teammates, primarily speaks Python, and a smattering of Go.


Story Type: Update

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