Digital freedoms are under attack worldwide. In countries like France and Turkey, governments are pushing for greater access to citizens’ data without their consent, ostensibly to improve “security” against terrorist threats. In many Asian nations, meanwhile, Internet access is limited and specific sites are banned, compelling users to leverage virtual private network (VPN) services and mask the origin of their connection just to access social media or world news Web pages. Closer to home, the NSA is fighting to keep its digital surveillance powers intact as the Patriot Act comes up for renewal this summer.
For many citizens, the result of all this government meddling is a sense of confusion and helplessness; what’s off-limits, and how are digital privacy rights being safeguarded, if at all? Fortunately, there are groups like Access.
According to Access’ “About Us” page, the group was formed just after the 2009 post-election crackdown in Iran, when digital freedoms were severely curtailed. Their mission statement is simple: “Access defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world. By combining innovative policy, user engagement, and direct technical support, we fight for open and secure communications for all.” Access works to connect digital activists with leaders in technology, academia and government to help spur real digital change and reinforce the notion that digital access is in fact a fundamental human right.
Along with conferences, informational events and protests, the site also reports on events which directly impact the end-user experience. For example, Access recently covered the recent UN statement which declared Internet “kill switches” as something which can never be justified under human rights law. Many nations rely on these switches in times of political unrest or economic turmoil to suppress communication among motivated and empowered citizens. While this sounds like the stuff of bad TV fiction, it’s worth knowing that the United States already has a wireless kill switch in place. If the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ever decides to flip it, wireless connectivity within a specific metropolitan area can be completely disabled. According to The Inquisitr, the DHS must face a hearing this month to justify the continued control — and the very existence — of this switch.
Thankfully, Access isn’t alone in the fight for better digital protections. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future and the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights also stand up for the rights of citizens to access the Internet anonymously and on-demand, without the oversight or permission of a government agency. For example, Hermes is committed to developing free and open-source software “with the purpose of increasing the Freedom of Speech online”, in addition to supporting work on the Tor2web project and the anonymity offered by the TOR network itself.
There’s also Human Rights Watch (HRW), which monitors human rights violations of all kinds but also weighs in on matters of digital privacy and efforts to hold governments accountable for their online actions. The organization is now recruiting new digital advocates to join their ranks and help stamp out human rights violations worldwide.
All for One
Ultimately, however, the efforts of groups like Access, Hermes and HRW are all for naught if ordinary citizens don’t get involved. This covers any kind of advocacy, from the use of anonymous browsing software or VPNs to keep your personal data shielded from spy agency eyes to signing petitions, showing up at rallies and holding government authorities accountable for their conduct.
As digital rights transition from “nice to have” for a small subset of the world’s population to fundamental expectation across the globe, groups like Access are needed more than ever. Alone, however, their mission is doomed to failure; together we can make an impact.
Featured image: Access