Claiming Civic Space: Five Things Civil Society Should Do

June 15, 2023

#3 – Defending and Expanding Digital Civic Space

co-authored by Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and Ryota Jonen, Director of the World Movement for Democracy

In 2022, the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (UNSR on FoAA) and the World Movement for Democracy convened a series of consultations with civil society partners around the world to identify global trends influencing the shrinking of Civic Space. This blog is part of a five-blog series that analyze these global trends while outlining strategies for Civil Society to push back and expand citizens’ rights and engagement in the public sphere. In our previous blogs, we discussed what civil society and media groups can do to address the shrinking of civic space, especially when authoritarian regimes enact sophisticated counter-terrorism laws or restrict freedom of expression. This blog focuses on the use of new digital technologies and what Civil Society can do to defend the online space.

Digital technologies have increasingly become essentially tools for civil society activists. Individuals have increasingly turned to digital spaces to communicate with others, disseminate information, and mobilize their communities. They now can participate in a “virtually connected civil society.”

In the recent presidential elections in Nigeria, we witnessed how young people effectively mobilized themselves through online platforms to insert their political views and demands in the political space that has been predominantly dominated by political old guards. Even though the Nigerian Government banned Twitter in 2021, young people have used innovative online tools to share information and grow their networks and movements. While the disappointing election raises questions about the legitimacy of the incoming government, young Nigerians have found a seat at a table to ensure that their voices are not ignored.

As a response to the growing virtual civic space, authoritarian regimes are increasingly using advanced digital technologies to surveil civil society activists, spreading a sense of fear and paranoia. Authoritarian regimes also use disinformation campaigns and anti-democratic narratives to delegitimize civil society. This “digital repression” is a growing threat to civic space.

To claim democratic civic space, our community of democracy advocates needs to take part in shaping ways that digital technologies are governed. To counter the sophisticated digital repression, all civil society groups, not just digital rights organizations, should be engaged in the process of understanding digital threats to civic space and developing effective responses to these challenges. By highlighting the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UNSR’s report also calls on investors in the digital technology sector to exercise human rights due diligence. Tech investors are uniquely placed to facilitate and incentivize tech companies and digital platforms to prevent, mitigate and address digital repression. After all, digital repression has not only suppressed civic space, but also affected the global economy. The economic cost of blocking the Internet in 2022 was nearly US$24 billion globally.