Technology highlighted as tool of social emancipation
Striving to improve the situation for human rights
Shahzad Ahmed, at the opening day of the Web Summit.
The story of Malala Yousafzai has brought the world’s attention to the plight of activists and human rights defenders in areas of Pakistan.
One agency striving to improve the situation is the human rights organisation Bytes for All, which seeks to both empower and protect such activists through the use of information technology – a striking example of how technology can serve as a tool of emancipation and social progress.
“I’m not a techie, I’m an activist,” says Shahzad Ahmad, the country director for Bytes for All Pakistan, as he describes his role with the group. “Pakistan is going through a lot of turmoil, so defending human rights is critical, but all the more difficult. Human rights defenders have been targeted because they’re not aware of how they’re vulnerable. People working on minority issues, women’s rights, people trying to promote secular discourse, promote education, all are being targeted. That is why strengthening these people’s digital security is a matter of life and death.”
Security of communication
Bytes for All, he explains, teaches activists how to protect themselves from identification online, using secure methods of communication with open-source, encrypted software.
Ahmad is attending the web summit with Frontline Defenders, the Irish-based human rights organisation, and while he might initially appear incongruous amid all the young entrepreneurs discussing apps and social networks, his belief in the power of technology to improve lives runs deep.
“Technology is egalitarian in nature – when you look at tech, it has given voices to the voiceless. If you want to have your say in a hugely Islamic society, you can now, thanks to the internet. Everyone can reach out and say what they have to.”
However, access to the internet in Pakistan is tightly controlled by the government. “Cyberspace in Pakistan is governed by blasphemy laws. YouTube is blocked for more than a year now,” he says, adding that internet filtering blocks millions of websites.
“Internet freedom in Pakistan is in major chaos. Though we pride ourselves to be a democracy, we are far from practising democratic principles.
Yousafzai advocates progress in educational access for girls and other causes.“I think Malala is a great symbol for development and for education in the country. She’s not only a symbol for the country, she’s a globally recognised personality, which is beautiful.”
The potential for technology to transform young women’s access to education is vast, but the obstacles are considerable – Ahmad points out that the physical infrastructure needed to connect huge swathes of the country is underdeveloped. In any case so much of the content of the web is inaccessible that access to educational materials is severely curtailed.
Ahmad acknowledges that the potential for technology to act as an agent of progress is balanced against its capacity to be used as a tool of oppression. In that sense, Edward Snowden’s revelations of vast global online surveillance by the US is particularly worrying. “This is a space that is extremely important for people. There have been infringements, we need to resolve them as soon as possible. It’s extremely unsettling that some of the champions of democracy, people who have stood on very high moral ground, have done these things with the medium. These actions have brought a lot of justification for many repressive regimes, and those regimes are now using these incidents to justify their acts, and strengthening their grasp on control of the internet.”
Internet of freedom
Despite the revelations, Ahmad remains defiant. “It doesn’t mean we should give up. We need to fight back to prevent further damage, and we need to organise ourselves that no such pressure or oppression is acceptable at all. It’s not only the concern of human rights defenders, it is the concern of all people, that we allow the internet to remain free for all future generations.”