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Internet's Future 9 January 2018

Future Thinking: Paula Côrte Real on Freedom of Expression Online

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed two people – the new OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and an emerging leader from Brazil, an Internet Society 25 Under 25 awardee – to hear their different perspectives on the forces shaping the Internet’s future: Harlem Désir and Paula Côrte Real.

Paula Côrte Real is a 24-year-old Brazilian who hopes to help create a safe and secure Internet experience for Brazil’s youth through her involvement in several youth engagement programs. One of those, led by the Commission of Information Technology Law from the Brazilian Bar Association in Pernambuco, helps students learn how to protect themselves while using the Internet. It also tackles current issues such as cyberbullying and cyberstalking. To date, the project has reached approximately 2,000 public school students between the ages of 15 and 18. In 2017, she was awarded the Internet Society’s 25 under 25 award for making an impact on her community and beyond.

(You can read Harlem Désir’s interview here.)

The Internet Society: What could impact the future of freedom of expression online?

Paula Côrte Real: As the Internet evolves and more and more people go online, it becomes increasingly tricky to protect and preserve freedom of expression online. What I fear most is people not being able or willing to express themselves online because of fears of surveillance and related censorship. Surveillance has a chilling effect on what people say online. Another concern I have is related to hate speech and a tendency to justify hate speech with the right to freedom of expression.

I believe the Internet is a mirror of society. Everything we experience offline, including the problems, we also have online. At the same time, we also have to remember that people are more likely to be aggressive when they are hiding behind a keyboard and a screen. We can’t blame the Internet or some platform for hate speech and other challenges online as it derives from offline contexts. Therefore, instead of tackling hate speech and other infringements of human rights in an online context alone, I think we have to address the root causes of the problem.

What are the responsibilities of social networks to protect/promote digital rights?

This is a complicated question, as we can’t say platforms don’t have any responsibility. They need to create a safe environment for their users and they sometimes try to do this with their terms of service. Most importantly, especially where fake news is concerned, I think we should work on building users’ media literacy and critical thinking skills. We have to make sure that people learn to check their sources and to be more critical about what they read and spread online. But this is difficult to achieve as even people with a formal education sometimes have a hard time identifying fake news. And in a developing country context, it’s also difficult to convince governments to spend money on developing these skills when there are other interests, priorities and difficulties.

How do policymakers balance “competing” rights online, such as protecting citizens while promoting digital rights?

In Brazil we managed this quite well with the Marco Civil [da Internet], which is basically a digital civil rights law. It was initially proposed in response to a proposed cybercrime bill, which would have criminalized certain simple online activities. I really think this is a good approach because you can’t just start criminalizing online activities without enabling rights and educating citizens if you want to realize the positive potential of the Internet for rights and freedom.  On the other hand, we have had some problems applying the law. It requires a change of mindset – also by judges – to understand that we now live in an information society in which we are all connected. But we’ll get there, I hope.

How do you see emerging technologies, such as IoT or AI, impacting freedom of expression?

I’m not a pessimist, but I think we need to be aware of what can happen to our freedoms because of new technologies. Again, these technologies will only reflect what we see in society in any case. The nature of AI and other technologies depends on the data we use to code and create it. Issues related to gender discrimination, violence, and other biases will be copied in algorithms that enable the technology. If you just use algorithms to reproduce what is in society, you will just reinforce every little problem that we already have. New technology might therefore offer a lot of benefits, but only if we use the tools in the right way. We need to make sure technologies like AI are being built and used for good purposes and not bad.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet? What are your fears?

My biggest hope is that we will use the Internet and technology for good to ensure that people can shape their own futures. That people will be provided with the required skills to use technology for good; to understand how the Internet can help them and improve their lives and improve things around them. I am happy to see so many projects of my new friends in the Internet Society’s 25 under 25 focused on social entrepreneurship. This makes me hopeful that we as young leaders can really work on shaping the future and improving people’s lives through technology.

My biggest fear is that technology will evolve in a way that only makes digital divides bigger. Not only in terms of access and getting more people online, but also in terms of creating an even bigger gap between developed and developing countries. I fear that the people who don’t have the necessary rights and skills to fully benefit from technology will be left even further behind. As the world evolves and technology becomes more central to societies, people who aren’t part of it will fall further behind. Even if people have access to the Internet but they don’t have the relevant skills, they will fall behind.

What do we need to do today to ensure freedom of expression in the future?

If I was to do just one thing, it would be to work on guaranteeing that people feel safe when they use the Internet and be able to trust it – especially women.

What do you think the future of the Internet looks like? Explore the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future to see how connectivity might transform media and societies across the globe, then choose a path to help shape tomorrow.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Internet Society.
Photo: Tsutsumida Pictures

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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