Shawarma, Baklava, and Digital Rights Law: Reflections from a Community Workshop on Digital Rights Legal Data at the 2017 Internet Governance Forum

The relationships between digital technologies and networks, and their national and regional legal frameworks, are rapidly evolving. Poorly drafted and arbitrarily applied legislation and regulations represent a serious threat to our digital rights and civic space, not only in the Arab region but broadly across the global South. A widespread lack of accessible, reliable resources that catalog national-level legislation affecting online freedoms has made it especially difficult for digital rights advocates to conceptualize these legal frameworks, identify their weaknesses, analyze emerging trends, qualify their impact and, most important, push for reform.

As part of our latest push to advance and expand our ongoing efforts to map the emerging legal framework for digital rights in the Arab region, SMEX and human rights documentation technology organization HURIDOCS joined forces during the 2017 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to host and co-facilitate “Shawarma, Baklava and Digital Rights Law,” an interactive workshop focused on sharing current initiatives at the intersection of digital rights and law, with the goal of laying the groundwork for a nascent community of practice and developing a shared roadmap for a legal database on digital rights law.

SMEX Executive Co-Director Jessica Dheere welcomes participants to our interactive workshop on data, digital rights and law co-hosted with HURIDOCS, Geneva, December 19, 2017 (SMEX).

On a chilly late-December evening in Geneva, a group of more than 30 legal practitioners, advocates, researchers, technologists, and human rights defenders came together over a warming, hearty meal of Lebanese shawarma, falafel, and sweets, to share their ongoing efforts to make sense of the emerging legal landscapes impacting digital rights, and to take the first steps towards collectively envisioning an open, online resource to catalogue and visualize digital rights-related legislation and caselaw data around the world. Opportunities to bring such diverse and interdisciplinary perspectives on a relatively new area of inquiry together under one roof are exceedingly rare – here are some of the things that we learned from the experience:

Efforts to document and visualize how laws and legal rulings affect citizens’ digital rights are already taking place at a global level.

At SMEX, we recognize that that no one entity can achieve its vision alone, especially one as expansive as cataloguing an emerging, intersectional category of law; therefore, the chief motivation behind this workshop was to invite broad collaboration from a variety of stakeholders on the development of an interoperable database framework as a community resource for digital rights legal data. In bringing such a diverse, interdisciplinary group together, our hope was that we – participants and organizers alike – would come away from the evening with a more concrete grasp of just how much of this work is already happening around the world.

In a series of insightful lightning talks during the workshop, we were fortunate enough to have a number of parallel projects share their unique, creative approaches for tackling this challenge – we learned more about a range of existing datasets and resources, such as Coding Rights’ digital rights legislation monitor Radar Legislativo, the Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression Caselaw Database, Ranking Digital Rights’ 2017 Key Findings visualizations, Internet Lab’s Policy Watch project and Seminario policy news bulletin, and Global Partners Digital’s interactive online World Map of Encryption, as well as prior and planned research initiatives by Point of View, the Association for Progressive Communications’ APC-IMPACT initiative, and Centro de Estudios en Libertad de Expresión y Acceso a la Información (CELE).

Together, our collective efforts already touch upon virtually every corner of the planet and have identified complementary but distinct aspects of the problem. In the weeks leading up to the event, it became clearer to us just how much interest there was in discussing and exploring this work, and that the number of individual initiatives documenting and analyzing these laws and their impacts was more than we first imagined. However, it was during the workshop itself that the true extent and vibrancy of thoughtful, methodical, and creative effort going into making sense of this complicated new area of inquiry really came to light.

There is a clear need for online resources offering accessible, adaptable, and verified data on legislation impacting digital rights.

Assembling the body of rigorously researched, verified evidence needed to build compelling advocacy in defense of users’ rights in digitally networked spaces is an enormous task that neither lawyers, technologists, activists nor researchers alone can single-handedly undertake. Continuously monitoring how laws impact our digital rights, interpreting these impacts and their ramifications for global audiences, and then leveraging this information to advocate on behalf of citizens when their digital rights are violated requires a broad commitment to ongoing coordination and sharing of resources. Promoting this kind of sustained collaboration among diverse stakeholders is always a challenge.

Together with HURIDOCS, during the workshop we presented our working prototype of an open database for cataloguing digital rights legislation and caselaw data, built on the adaptable data model and API developed for the Arab Digital Rights Dataset and the HURIDOCS Uwazi platform. After sharing the prototype, we facilitated an interactive user need–finding exercise in which participants identified specific feature and usability requirements to be included in a shared roadmap for the platform’s development.

Despite the late hour of this final third of the three-hour workshop (at the end of a full-day of IGF programming, no less), participants went on a facilitated usability scavenger hunt, working together to replicate a variety of user scenarios using the prototype—a task to which they applied themselves so intensively we found ourselves faced with the uncommon-yet-happy facilitation challenge of having to encourage the group to stop working. During the final go-around following the exercise, participants recounted their experiences navigating the platform and working with the sample dataset contained within it. The feedback shared was very direct, highly specific, and in all cases clearly connected to real-life use case examples, indicating that participants were able to quite easily envision how they might use such a resource in their own work.

An overarching theme emerged almost unanimously across the feedback provided: beyond mere analysis of individual laws and cases, what participants really wanted was to be able to visualize and understand the intricate web of relationships between them. This spoke to a clear need for resources, such as database and infographic tools, through which legal practitioners, researchers, activists and others can systematically explore emerging digital rights landscapes by tracing the causal and thematic connections between different laws, legal precedents, and other verified digital rights legal data.

The motivation, enthusiasm and respect needed to sustain a more formalized network of practice is already present.

Reflecting on the experience of facilitating the usability exercise for this particular group of participants, the level of shared motivation there was to contribute to the development of the database prototype was impressive. However, what was truly remarkable about the experience was how much shared enthusiasm there was among participants to come together and address the broader challenges of organizing and interpreting digital rights legal data in such a collaborative manner, where the knowledge and experience of others was both openly exchanged and actively sought after.

There were several significant areas of common agreement on user actions that the platform should support – examples include an enhanced capacity to broadly visualize connections between legal resources within and across datasets (as mentioned above), as well as features allowing users to track the status of draft laws and access their version history to identify key changes. Throughout the event, feedback points offered by different participants frequently dovetailed with one another – when desires for specific capabilities or features were expressed, they were often followed by constructive suggestions for corresponding improvements to the platform’s usability and design.

On the few occasions that disagreements did arise, comments were constructive, respectful and grounded in a desire to listen and learn from each other’s perspectives rather than to refute them. This was evident in one such discussion concerning sweeping changes to legal codes containing a panoply of individual laws, and whether tracking updates to specific digital rights–relevant provisions should be considered a potential feature. Participants nonetheless found the topic worth addressing, keeping the focus on better understanding the issue and then assessing its relevance to the platform.

We were deeply encouraged by how positively and professionally the exchange unfolded over the course of our three hours together, and even more so by how actively and enthusiastically participants transformed discussion into focused collaboration. It was clear that we all shared a common passion for our work, and that there was a willingness to continue our efforts in a more coordinated manner – some of the key ingredients for igniting and sustaining the kind of ongoing interaction and exchange from which vibrant communities of practice are born. Going into the workshop, we were hopeful it might offer a needed opportunity to foment a nascent yet more formalized community of digital rights law and data practice; coming out of it, we are deeply optimistic that this is possible, with the first steps towards doing so taken together with 30 passionate, dedicated and motivated individuals that evening in Geneva.

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