IGF 2022 Launch / Award Event #70 COVID-19: Changes to digital rights priorities and strategies - Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2021-2022 Launch

Tuesday, 29th November, 2022 (06:00 UTC) - Tuesday, 29th November, 2022 (07:00 UTC)

Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Civil Society


The speakers will include a panel from the GISWatch community (civil society):

- Gayatri Khandhadai (Business and Human Rights Resource Centre)
- Paola Ricaurte (Tecnológico de Monterrey, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Tierra Común)
- Deeepika Yadav (Digital Trade Alliance)
- Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion (Privacy International)
- Jamila Venturini (Derechos Digitales)

GISWatch editor Alan Finlay will facilitate the session, with introductory comments by Valeria Betancourt, Manager of APC's Communications and Information Policy Programme, responsible for the publication of GISWatch, and closing remarks by Chat Garcia Ramilo, executive director of APC.

Onsite Moderator

Valeria Betancourt

Online Moderator

Alan Finlay


Maja Romano


5. Gender Equality
9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Targets: The proposed session/launch is founded on the research prepared for the 2021-2022 edition of GISWatch, which represents global South voices around the world addressing how the pandemic has challenged digital rights priorities and strategies, and affected the ways in which civil society organisations do their advocacy work. Research indicates that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sustainable Development Goals have been set back by years. The trends noted are alarming - a weakening of collective civil society agendas in key areas such as privacy, freedom of expression, digital rights and harms, migration, intellectual property, are likely to be exacerbated by a deepening of the digital and social divides. The surge in internet demand is unlikely to abate, and the trend of more people being online more often is likely to continue. While a lack of internet access for marginalised communities has impacted negatively on their ability to access their rights (such as to education and work), small internet service providers have been thrown into crisis situations due to the unprecedented demand on their services. For those who are working on eradicating online gender-based violence, the terrain has shifted in any way with new ways in which online gender-based violence is expressed in the context of accelerated digitalisation. The pressure of the pandemic will be felt for a new collective model of civil society engagement, but a new way of engaging will have to be created for this to coalesce. The contributors to this edition have proposed action steps for how to address these challenges and better understand the longer-term impact of the pandemic on internet rights and related advocacy priorities.


The format will be a dialogue between GISWatch editor Alan Finlay and a small panel of authors, specifically responding to questions based on their reports and addressing thematic elements. There will also be a question and answer period during which all authors will be able to engage in a discussion with each other and the public, answering questions about their reports and focusing specifically on the “Action Steps” and key recommendations noted in each chapter.

Duration (minutes)

Building on 15 years of GISWatch reports, this launch will bring to the forefront the latest edition of Global Information Society Watch on the theme “Digital futures for a post-pandemic world”. Through 36 country and regional reports and over a dozen thematic reports, this edition addresses two key questions: a) How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed or shaped the ways in which civil society organisations do their advocacy work around digital technology-related issues, including digital rights? 2) How have digital technology and digital rights advocacy priorities shifted due to the pandemic? Speakers will explore how shifts in the priorities for advocacy and in the advocacy terrain itself may impact various fields of internet rights advocacy.

COVID-19 is described as an “accelerated transition” to digitalisation, with at least during the height of the pandemic more people being online for longer periods of time, whether for work, education, transacting online, or socialising. The potential for data harvesting by big tech was enormous. This was coupled by many governments hastily implementing planned or new e-government programmes, whether to make government services available online, or for contact tracing amongst other interventions, to deal with the crisis. As some put it, more is now known about us than ever before. Of course, behind this is the drive towards a data economy and society – and the potentials and perils that this might hold for digital rights.

For more information, please see https://www.giswatch.org/


1) Interaction onsite and online will be facilitated by a resource person who will, throughout the session, be collecting questions raised in the online chat and, if requested by participants, alert the online facilitators that an online participant wishes to ask a question to the panel, to ensure that all participants have a chance to share comments. 2) Since we expect most panel members to participate online, they will prepare in advance to have high quality microphones and cameras to ensure smooth communication throughout the session, so that participants who are connecting online or attending in person can follow along easily. A session moderator will focus on the timing of the session and invite participants to engage through chat or video during discussion periods.

Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Digital rights advocacy priorities have been affected by the pandemic and civil society can and must play a key role in mapping the shifted terrain. Advocacy priorities have, on the one hand, stayed the same (a “turning back” or learning from history is necessary), and, on the other, that they have to be refocused to attend properly to a subtly or significantly altered terrain.

With lockdowns forcing more people online for longer periods of time, alongside the techno-centric, “top-down” interventions adopted by governments, the immediate consequences of a lack of digital rights and meaningful access were for many harsh, visceral and ubiquitous. Ensuring meaningful internet access is fundamental to sustainable development.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

There is an urgent need for regional and global responses arising from true – and significantly strengthened – multilevel, multidisciplinary and multistakeholder collaboration, based on the principles of inclusiveness, transparency and shared responsibility. These need to recognise that different contexts and impacts require differentiated and specific responses, including public policy interventions.

There is a need for a fresh impetus towards movement building, working across civil society, and including organisations that may not have taken digital rights as a priority before. This is necessary not only to address the shrinking of civic space, but also to collectively challenge the new geopolitical and economic power dynamics that are refracted in the digital sphere.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

Fifteen years ago, when it became evident that it was necessary to establish systematic follow-up mechanisms on the WSIS goals and to develop concrete actions to implement the WSIS commitments, the idea of creating Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) emerged. GISWatch has evolved into a “rough guide” to the information society from a civil society perspective. The content is informed by contextual analysis at country level but at the same time it addresses the global dimension of the digital societies. It has become a powerful tool to nurture policy and practice of digital technologies to contribute to achieve social, environmental and gender justice.

GISWatch 2021-2022, on the theme of “Digital futures for a post-pandemic world”, focuses on responses to some of the fundamental questions brought by the pandemic to inform civil society’s advocacy around digital technology issues and their potential to shape future horizons. It offers a nuanced understanding of the challenges we face and it ignites renewed energy to reshape the sense of us as a necessary force to imagine and work towards the digital future that we want in a post pandemic world.

Bringing together a panel of five speakers – all of whom also contributed chapters to the current edition – the launch of GISWatch 2021-2022 was facilitated by the project’s long-time editor, Alan Finlay, who engaged the speakers in a series of questions exploring the changes to digital rights priorities brought about by the pandemic.

Starting off the discussion, Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion of Privacy International noted that as governments were facing unprecedented circumstances in controlling and monitoring the spread of the pandemic, many of the technology-based responses “failed to consider what was necessary at a particular point in time and at different stages of the pandemic.”

That rush to cast aside lessons learned about the privacy risks of technologies introduced, among others, disregard for the regulation of metadata in favour of tracking individuals to enforce lockdown measures, for example, and a lack of adequate frameworks for data sharing in the case of certificates for cross-border travel. “When the pandemic started, we threw out of the window all of these things that we knew already could have informed and improved decision making,” Pirlot de Corbion observed. Many states pushed for techno-solutionist approaches, which, according to her have created “a lack of human rights due diligence and effective enforcement of existing human rights obligation and responsibilities.”

The impacts, predictably, affect marginalised communities to disproportionate degrees. She cautioned that long-term policies should not be based on flawed assessments and “one size fits all” approaches. This research is further detailed in Privacy International’s GISWatch chapter, “Tech, data and the pandemic: Reflecting for next time.”

The role of civil society in responding to the shifts brought about the pandemic were further discussed by Jamila Venturini of Derechos Digitales, who outlined several key advocacy points, focusing on responses from the global South. “Fostering policies for meaningful connectivity is in the centre of the digital rights agenda more than ever,” she explained, noting in particular the “impacts of digitisation to marginalised groups of people who are disconnected or prevented from having meaningful access.”

A key priority would therefore be to include people who are impacted by digital rights policies in decision-making spaces on national, regional and global levels. Those issues are explored in depth in the GISWatch chapter, “Another look at internet regulation: Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Examining contact tracing apps through the framework of public interest technologies, Paola Ricaurte Quijano of Tecnológico de Monterrey, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and Tierra Común also noted that technology responses to the health crisis in Latin America were largely improvised. The result, she explained, is that “the pandemic highlighted the lack of digital policies, preparedness and infrastructure, and the widespread tendency to adopt private solutions to address the emergency.”

The decisions made by governments to develop and use certain types of technology without adequate consideration of potential harm on people’s rights highlighted what Ricuarte describes as “a trend associated with a lack of understanding of technology as a matter of public interest.” Examining responses through this lens is detailed in the chapter, “Getting ready for the next pandemic: Public interest technologies in Latin America.”

While states were rushing to deal with the health crisis, many public-private partnerships were established to implement digital technologies during the pandemic. Gayatri Khandhadai from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre discussed how public trust has been eroded in these partnerships due to the numerous rights violations that occurred as a result. “These concerns became more augmented by the fact that we witnessed large-scale spread of deliberate misinformation on messaging applications,” Khandhadai added.

Many questions were raised as people saw their data abused, mishandled and compromised by private companies that took advantage of the crisis by deploying harmful technology-driven solutions. “We did not know what is being collected, how it was being used, who had access to it, what happens if there was a violation,” Khandhadai stated. “Is there going to be oversight? Are there going to be consequences? Is there a mitigation strategy in place? We didn't know any of that. In my opinion, I don't think we still know the answer to many of those questions.” These issues are analysed in the GISWatch chapter, “The rights approach: Pushing back against opaque public-private partnerships.”

Shifting the discussion to the question of intellectual property (IP), Deepika Yadav of the Digital Trade Alliance talked about a joint proposal from India and South Africa called the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver. As outlined in Yadav’s research, “the waiver asked that all IP rights for technologies that are important to develop vaccines, medicine, equipment and kits be waived until ‘the majority of the world's population has developed immunity.’”

What happened in reality, Yadav explained, is that the countries making promises to develop vaccines as a readily-available global public good were in fact generating “a narrative of broken promises,” resulting in unequal vaccine distribution (especially between the North and South) and resulting in gross inequality and devastating consequences. More information is detailed in the GISWatch chapter, “Advocacy in times of TRIPS waiver.”

Having examined the theme through multiple angles, the launch was wrapped up with closing remarks by APC executive director, Chat Garcia Ramilo. who offered a hopeful note in the face of the challenges of recent years, explaining the importance of alliances in our ability to make a difference. “This is the hope,” she said, “to actually create these alliances and not only to document them, but to use them and strengthen advocacies.”