Reflections on Bread&Net: The growing importance of digital rights activism in the MENA region

Bread&Net was a multi-day conference that took place between 19 and 21 November in Beirut, where activists, technologists, lawyers, artists, trainers, journalists, researchers, entrepreneurs, and others from across the Middle East North Africa region came together with the purpose of strengthening collective efforts to advance human rights in digitally networked spaces. Bread&Net was an initiative from SMEX, an organization that aims to promote efforts in the Arabic-speaking region to defend human rights online.

Built by the participants in attendance, the Bread&Net program was organized around four central themes – considering policy in difficult contexts, language and localization, intersections of individuality and communities, and cultural and knowledge production online – and worked to improve strategies for involving wider and more diverse communities in the development and critique of policies that implicate human rights.

The breadth in organizations and individuals present from across MENA and beyond was a testament to the growing importance of digital rights activism in the region. As we continue to witness the impact of technology on human rights, coupled with continuously shrinking civic spaces, the work of civil society is as important as ever. In this environment, Access Now is working to increase awareness of and fight for personal data protection, privacy, access to information, and free expression online for everyone. The protection and extension of these rights are an essential component of our universal, fundamental human rights. Over the course of the event, experts from Access Now held sessions discussing our work, sharing our experiences, and learning from others in the region.   

On November 20, the first day of the conference, MENA advocacy lead Emna Sayadi led a session on the role technology plays in civic engagement, particularly in countries where freedom of expression and safe public spheres do not exist in a climate of repressive laws and government surveillance. Under such circumstances, the digital world represents a platform for engagement, capacity building and campaigning. Speakers from four different countries across the region presented stories of their respective local political frameworks and how these interact with the social and legislative environments in such a way that makes online spaces the most viable choice and alternative for advocacy work. The session provided an important opportunity to share and build from success stories, something the community isn’t always able to find space for.

Wafa Ben Hassine, policy counsel for MENA, also held a session on the impact the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), introduced in May 2018, has had on the world beyond the borders of Europe. The GDPR replaced all pre-existing data laws in the 28 member states and represents the most significant change to data protection law in 20 years. The new approach to data protection, which strengthened individuals’ control over their own data and improved transparency about how that data is processed has brought about a new regulatory environment for businesses and individuals alike. In MENA, the influence of the GDPR can already be seen, as some countries in the region – including Tunisia – are starting to draft and seek passage of holistic data protection legislation.

Access Now’s Digital Security Clinic was also on site offering information, assistance, and resources to civil society members in attendance. Our Digital Security Helpline technologist offered support by assessing risks and needs, analyzing user practices, troubleshooting problems and providing the tools and training needed to address emergent issues.

As the state of human rights is reportedly in a state of decline globally, MENA represents an especially negative picture of the state of fundamental rights, with growing constraints on civic space and repressive laws and tactics in use across the region. Mounting cases of censorship, detention, and direct attacks against  journalists and human rights defenders have become common occurrences, which the highly publicized killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought to the world’s attention. In Egypt and Bahrain, cybercrime laws have become tools by which the government legalizes censorship to control the media and prevent the public expression of dissent online. Such laws have serious impacts on individuals, but are especially threatening to human rights defenders and opponents to the authoritarian regimes in place in many MENA countries.

In spite of the many risks and challenges human rights defenders face in the region, events such as Bread&Net reveal the resiliency of human rights defenders in the region and underscore the importance of open discussion, collaboration, and problem-solving that regional convenings are able to achieve.

In June 2019, RightsCon, Access Now’s annual summit on human rights in the digital era, will be held in in the Middle East and North Africa region for the first time, in Tunis, Tunisia. The three-day summit brings together the many stakeholders involved in technology and policy to develop strategies at the local, regional, and global level, while also providing a space for at-risk communities to gather together, draw strength from each other, and share innovative ideas for building a more equitable, inclusive, and rights-respecting world for everyone. Join us in continuing the conversations that began at Bread&Net by contributing to the development of the strongest possible RightsCon program. We invite you to submit a session in our Call for Proposals — in English, French, or Arabic — and look forward to seeing you at RightsCon Tunis.