Engaging Digital Rights in Southeast Asia

by Andrew April 08, 2015
I've just arrived in Manila to a hubbub of activity as EngageMedia, Access and the Foundation for Media Alternatives put the final touches on RightsCon Southeast Asia.


Some of the six satellite events have already begun and excited faces, both old and new, are popping up. After more than a year of intensive work it's great to see the culmination of our combined efforts. With more than 500 people attending, RightsCon Southeast Asia will be a big moment for the digital rights and open internet movement in the region, as well as for EngageMedia.

Why are we here?

EngageMedia has long been involved in the open internet and digital rights space; we built Plumi, our open source video sharing software, promoted Creative Commons among independent video producers in Southeast Asia, conducted a plethora of digital security trainings with media makers, and participated as members in digital rights networks such as the Association for Progressive Communications.

This work has been foundational to our identity, however it is our video initiatives, be it convening regional or global networks, training migrant workers or supporting Papuan communities, that have been the bigger part of our story.

In early 2014 EngageMedia made a strategic decision to commit more deeply to the open internet and digital rights movements, for a number of reasons.

The issues of digital rights, an open internet and media production and distribution cannot be separated.. In our field the internet is the primary distribution channel for this media and where its audience lives. Everything exists within the fabric of the network, and the integrity of that network is being dramatically eroded as a result of both state intelligence agencies and data hungry online platforms.

The Snowden leaks revealed what many already suspected; that US and other intelligence agencies had back doors into user communications at some of the biggest technology companies in the world – Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Apple and more. The story turns out to be more dramatic than even the most cynical expected, for example, technology companies deliberately making their products insecure at the behest of the NSA, Skype and Microsoft Outlook being amongst them.

There are a myriad of implications of this corrupting of the technology and the network. One is increased security threats to the human rights and environmental advocacy groups EngageMedia works with. Online platforms and applications routinely ingest sensitive information, often happily provided by users, enabling the tracking activities, friendship associations and personal movements down to the smallest detail. For those making and distributing media about politically sensitive issues, be they human rights, climate change or free speech, this absence of privacy can result in direct persecution, but more generally, it has a chilling effect on free speech and political organising.

Security has always been a component of our video production and distribution trainings, however the depth of surveillance now occurring has forced us to significantly increase this work. It also forces us to question the liberatory presumptions behind enabling freedom of expression online when we are also increasing activists' and media makers' capacity to be surveilled.

Our contribution to date in challenging this has been to produce a platform like Plumi for secure video sharing, to use and to advocate the use of open source encryption tools, and to conduct digital security trainings with activists and media makers. The scale of the problem however requires a much larger response. The foundations of our work to assist marginalised groups raise their voices and build their impact are deeply threatened by the absence of a free and open internet and a right to privacy.

Our work also assumes that the communities and social movements we work with have meaningful and affordable access to the internet, a key cornerstone of the what internet freedom is. Video, as the main media we distribute, requires that. Internet access in the region is increasing dramatically, but the difference between the urban and rural is stark. While we have found strategies and tactics to continue our online video distribution work despite this critical gap, our work will be greatly enhanced by equitable internet access across the region.

Fundamentally these issues require a movement to shift the balance of power between citizens, technology companies and governments. For EngageMedia, RightsCon is part of a larger contribution towards building that movement.

After RightsCon EngageMedia will continue our work facilitating networks and supporting social movements in Southeast Asia. Over the coming year we're planning a series of smaller regional events, research, digital security trainings and awareness raising and campaign work.

Hope to see you in Manila!