The fourth workshop of the Data Privacy Learning Series took place on March 10th, 2022, and discussed regional coordination among civil society organizations in the Global South to advance data protection. The discussion departed from concrete cases and built on some of the points made in previous workshops, especially regarding advocacy strategies and campaigns carried out by ADAPT partners which involved regional coalitions. The objective of this fourth exchange was to dive deeper into the possibilities and the concrete challenges in coordinating data protection advocacy strategies across different countries.
Conversations with data protection activists and advocates revealed a general sense of frustration with how challenging regional coordination can be to achieve, at least in a meaningful way. Those same individuals and organizations, however, stressed the perceived importance of coordination and its potential role in advancing data protection legal frameworks and practices, particularly in a scenario of vulnerability and center-periphery asymmetries that persist in the international arena.
As a ‘’border issue’’, regional coordination of digital rights and data protection organizations can lead to debates on strategies to generate regional alliances, to inform local civil society organizations through coalitions/consortiums, as well as to expose trends and common concerns that may connect civil society organizations as they conduct their work. Despite several challenges and costs related to any articulation with different stakeholders, forming networks or coalitions at the regional level presents inherent advantages. Historical and cultural identity proximities, as well as existing institutional relations at the state level that can create opportunities for regional or sub-regional integration. When talking about Global South countries, it can also be a strong strategy to confront power asymmetries at the international level, while also enhancing capacity to promote and advance relevant agendas within their national borders.
Why is it so crucial for Global South civil society to work together when it comes to data protection?
The importance of network activism for civil society organizations in the Global South is highlighted both in theory and in some very recent empirical studies.
One of the reasons is that legal provisions – including comprehensive data protection laws – can reinforce, rather than reduce, asymmetries of powers between data subjects, the public and the private sector. That counterintuitive theory is pointed out, for example, in the book entitled Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism by professor Julie E. Cohen, which draws attention to the importance of maintaining robust advocacy strategies even after legal guarantees are in place. An example for Cohen is that despite the many advances made in the wake of the European GDPR, actual enforcement is mainly influenced by the private sector, with many data controllers enjoying privileges that DPAs from various jurisdictions in the Global South are still granting.
Across the Global South a lack of resources and adequate independence have exacerbated and complicated the problems with enforcement. In such scenarios, for data protection and privacy to become a reality, it is necessary that privacy advocates, including lawyers, journalists, computer science professionals and activists, work collectively through networks to optimize scarce resources and overcome the many challenges such as the lack of political will and the lack of the general engagement that will undoubtedly arise.
A second episode took place in a more limited scope, but also carries visible impacts. Data Privacy Brasil led a workshop which connected a network of activists from the Global South (Including representatives from African and Latin America) with Brazilian government personnel to discuss the issue of Digital IDs and datafication of public policy. This opportunity proved to be ‘’unusual’’, but highly valuable for public decision-makers in Brazil, who were presented with the complexities of this subject and its implications to digital rights in a wider perspective of different Global South countries and organizations.
How is regional coordination being conducted in Nigeria and Kenya?
Both KICTANet (in Kenya) and Paradigm Initiative (in Nigeria) are today part of a significant regional coordination structure for the promotion of digital rights in the African continent. Both organizations are part of coalitions such as African Internet Rights Alliance (AIRA), the African Declaration, the Net Rights coalition, and the African Digital Rights Coalition, among others. At the same time, each NGO has its own trajectory and faces challenges that are typical of its domestic reality, so this combination of similarities and important differences can offer insights into the pros and cons, successes and challenges of a coordinated Global South activism across borders.
At the workshop, Sani (from Paradigm Initiative) underlined that the action toward regional coordination networks started in 2013 when the NGO hosted the Pan African Internet Freedom Forum (IFF, now DRIF) to discuss internet freedom on the continent. Shortly after, with the launch of the Marco Civil da Internet (The Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights), it became evident to the African continent countries that they faced a legislative gap when it came to digital rights. In this context, the idea behind the Nigerian Digital Rights and Freedoms Bill (DRFB) emerged. Subsequently, the IFF became a lobby group to push for the DRFB to become full legislation in Nigeria. Shortly after that, IFF members coordinated regionally and formed the Net Rights Coalition, whose goal is to change the Digital Rights landscape in the country broadly. Today, the Net Rights coalition has more than 200 members and 60 partner organizations and, despite the inherent difficulty in measuring precise outcomes of the work of these groups, both the passing of the DRFB in Nigeria and the development of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms were possible because of the coalition.
Along the same lines, KICTANet’s current focus when it comes to regional work lies, above all, in promoting multi-stakeholder participation and building partner networks that also include other sectors, with representatives of governments, bilateral and multilateral agencies, companies, academia, and civil society as a whole.
Victor (from KICTANet) highlighted the organization’s work within AIRA, citing the relevance of a well-defined working structure and resources, with the Secretariat being led by a Consultant who coordinates the activities,regular meetings and constant exchanges between the organizations allowing for cross-pollination of common strategies and a continuous workflow.
Regional coordination in the Global South: gains and challenges
Just after the presentations, the workshop moved towards an open discussion, focusing on the potential and observed impacts and challenges of regional coordination for data protection advocacy in the Global South.
The consensus about the impacts of regional coordination were:
- Support in building sustainable and informed projects;
- An optimization of resources and an increased ability to overcome barriers to enter multilateral forums;
- Promotion of more security and resilience of organizations from external influence and pressure;
- Increased pressure for governments and regulators to act against large transnational companies on these matters.
Regarding the more prominent challenges that organizations located in the Global South have encountered and may face in the future, the most discussed ones were:
- Lack of resources – that the amount of funding determines the strength of the action;
- The disconnect between digital rights and traditional human rights actors in the Global South;
- Short term results can be hard to find, as most become visible in the long term;
- Different legislation/ legal systems make it harder to capture the bigger picture.