Key Findings

Civil society groups from the Global South are leading the charge to advocate for an Internet that remains open, pluralistic, and democratic. The nine case studies highlighted in this report demonstrate various ways groups in different countries have successfully fought for policies and norms that strengthen Internet freedom and digital rights. These strategies include awareness-raising, nonviolent direct action, regional and international coalition-building, and strategic litigation.

• Media freedom advocates have been at the forefront of many Internet freedom efforts.

• Threats to independent media online and freedom of expression continue to mount as authoritarian regimes become more technologically savvy.

• Building broad civil society coalitions around Internet rights increases the chances of long-term success.


The debate over whether the Internet is a better tool for democratic empowerment or authoritarian control misconstrues the nature of the democratic challenges of the digital age. The Internet is not a tool, but a complex domain of “competing forces and constraints.”1 These forces are comprised of powerful businesses, states, politicians, criminal enterprises, advocacy groups: in short, all of the elements present in any democracy. But in this cyber-democracy, forces compete in part on the shifting ground of the technological and physical infrastructure of the Internet, where some players wield more power than others with an ability to mold the terrain in their favor. Authoritarian states aware of what is at stake in the evolution of the Internet are beginning to engage in long-term and well-resourced efforts to undermine the democratic rights of citizens in this more fundamental way.

In a reference to the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that take down a specific website, these broader efforts represent what some have called a “distributed denial-of-democracy” (DDoD) attack aimed at reducing the utility of the Internet for genuine democratic discourse. These efforts, which are coordinated and well resourced, are often more insidious, harder to detect, and have the overall effect of undermining civic engagement and overall trust in the media ecosystem.

And while the diffuse and fast-changing nature of Internet can at times make it difficult for authoritarian regimes to exert their control, the complex interplay between technology, laws, infrastructure, and socio-political factors shaping the Internet make it equally difficult for democratic actors to counteract these DDoD strategies. As an additional obstacle, the values that underpin Internet freedom can be sidelined in the forums and governing bodies that set Internet standards by the dominance in those spaces of private tech companies concerned primarily with generating profits.

Formidable though they may be, these challenges are not insurmountable. Civil society groups from the Global South are leading the charge to advocate for an Internet that remains open, pluralistic, and democratic. The nine case studies highlighted in this report demonstrate various ways groups in different countries have successfully fought for policies and norms that strengthen Internet freedom and digital rights. These strategies include awareness-raising, nonviolent direct action, regional and international coalition-building, and strategic litigation.

Each of the following case studies corresponds to one of the nine guiding principles of a Democratic Framework to Interpret Open Internet Principles. This framework was collaboratively developed by a network of civil society groups worldwide to illuminate the ways that an open Internet is essential for the functioning of democratic societies. It was inspired by the norms and standards developed by the Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition (IRPC) of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum.

The framework is an important starting point for more effective, coordinated effort to ensure that the Internet remains a welcoming place for democratic life. Its aim is to create a consensus around the values that should shape the future development of the Internet. But moreover, it also provides an avenue for understanding and sharing knowledge on the concrete strategies that can be put into practice in different contexts to make sure that the Internet remains a level playing field. The following nine examples demonstrate how citizen groups can mobilize to enshrine such democratic principles in cyberspace.

“The debate over whether the Internet is a better tool for democratic empowerment or authoritarian control misconstrues the nature of the democratic challenges of the digital age.”

1. Freedom of Expression

In the Philippines, a cybercrime law introduced in 2012 proposed increasing penalties for libel and giving authorities unchecked power to track information online. Internet freedom activists worried several provisions of the law would infringe on freedom of expression by preventing Filipinos from freely posting content on websites, and participating in online forums and discussions without fear of being blocked or facing serious penalties. In response, pro-democracy organizations from across the political spectrum joined together to challenge the constitutionality of the law. Through protests, roundtables, and capacity building activities, they raised awareness and encouraged advocacy efforts around the dangers the law posted to freedom of expression and privacy. The Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), a digital rights organization founded after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship and the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA), a broad nationwide coalition of pro-democracy and Internet freedom advocates, were among the organizations in the front lines on the struggle. PIFA was even one of the 20 organizations to file 15 petitions to the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of the law.

Public efforts in the courts and actions in the streets contributed to the takedown of three contested provisions of the law, including provision that would allow government to block or restrict access to computer data. The Supreme Court declared these provisions unconstitutional and delayed implementation of the law. Despite public concerns about the surviving provisions, the national campaign against the cybercrime law led to a turning point for Filipino activists; it showed the power of people coming together and fighting for the importance of digital rights in the Philippines. Initially fragmented, the campaign led to a larger movement unified under the goal of protecting human rights and freedom of expression online. Thus, it took the introduction of a flawed law and active public campaigns to initiate a broader dialogue about privacy, surveillance, and digital security. Digital rights communities across Southeast Asia have been inspired by Filipino advocacy efforts, which they have understood to be an example of how to communicate the balance required between anti-cybercrime measures with fundamental rights to a public audience.

2. Freedom of Assembly and Association

Social media is an important organizing tool for journalists and advocacy groups in Uganda. Facebook, WhatsApp, and other messaging applications have been used to share political knowledge, connect leaders with supporters, and organize events — even share information about government abuses. During national ‘Walk to Work’ protests in 2011, organized to protest living costs after presidential elections, Facebook and Twitter provided a steady stream of updates from protestors, bystanders, and journalists.

Using social media, however, can have dangerous consequences for marginalized groups such as the LGBT community. The government of Uganda has been known to collect user information and prosecute individuals based on information shared on social media. Uganda is one of 76 countries where homosexuality is currently criminalized, and LGBT activists fear that their online conversations will be monitored and used against them. By posting information taken from photos and content posted on Facebook, a local tabloid exposed the identity of numerous members of the LGBT community in 2011 and again in 2014. The tabloid stories in 2011 are believed to have contributed to the killing of David Kato, a prominent gay rights activist.

Furthermore, the government has repeatedly restricted access for advocacy groups to use the Internet to share political information. In 2016, the country’s media regulator restricted the use of WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter to prevent the organizing of protests before presidential elections in February as the government had done before in 2011. In both cases, the electoral commission enforced the social media shut-down.

Civil society groups have responded in two ways. First, they have sought to deepen their digital security capacity. To protect against threats to journalists, LGBT organizations, and other groups have learned how to use Facebook and social media applications more securely and to implement other practices that increase their privacy. In the lead up to the 2016 election this included the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to share information. Civil society groups spread information about how to use them through radio broadcasts. The fact that the hashtag #UgandaDecides trended on Twitter shows how they were able to spread their knowledge through local networks and connect with international media. Secondly, civil society groups built coalitions with international organizations to draw attention to abuses taking place in Uganda. In 2016, Access Now supported a coalition of groups to demand that the government stop the Internet shutdown as part of the #KeepitOn campaign.

3. Accessibility

In Nigeria, national broadband plans have overlooked rural communities, leaving them with low bandwidth and high-cost options for Internet access. This means that broadband and mobile data fees are unaffordable to many in Nigeria, especially the poor. Fixed-line broadband subscriptions cost an average of 39 percent of average income, and mobile broadband packages cost 13 percent. Given that approximately 80 percent of Nigerians earn below the poverty line ($2 a day or less), access to the Internet is out of reach and unaffordable for a majority of citizens in Nigeria.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet, a global coalition working on Internet affordability, works with Nigerian civil society leaders to raise awareness around this issue through thematic working groups. The consumer advocacy and pricing transparency working group, for instance, works closely with a coalition of Nigerian NGOs that have been leading campaigns to raise awareness about pricing and taxation policies that have been proposed in Nigeria. One proposed policy includes imposing a nine percent tax on voice, data, and SMS services to consumers. This policy would make the Internet dramatically more expensive for Nigerian consumers. Groups say they worry about the consequences of the proposed policy in an environment where farmers are forced to climb trees just to get a stable Internet connection.

Civil society leaders who are part of the coalition have worked to build a healthy dialogue between regulators, civil society, and the government. A key strategy, according to activists, has been encouraging groups to find constructive ways to work with government and leveraging the interests of each of these groups to protect and drive down costs for Nigerian consumers. They seek to build relationships with the regulator and to inform them about ways to better communicate with and engage consumer groups, such as sharing their content through social media rather than press releases. Another important learning has been identifying champions within government to work on these issues.

4. Privacy and Data Protection

In Burma, gaps in the law have left citizens vulnerable when it comes to privacy and data protection. Restrictions on privacy have eased since the country’s transition from military rule, but a lack of data protection laws and general lack of awareness around privacy and data protection present significant challenges for protecting an open Internet.

Messaging applications such as Viber and Facebook Messenger, for example, are the de-facto tool for communication for activists and are used to organize political events and activities. Cheaper than voice calls, far more accessible than landlines, and easier to use than email, these tools are the primary way people in Burma communicate. Activists have received harsh penalties for sharing content that may be viewed as threatening state security. These applications are often not secure, making it possible for Burma state authorities or agents of the state to intercept their conversations. During a crackdown on student protests in March 2015, mobile phones were taken by police. Activists worried at the time that information on these phones would eventually be used against them.

Observing the need to protect activists and educate them about data protection, activists in 2016 formed a coalition, Digital Rights MM. The coalition, led by Phandeeyar, Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, Myanmar ICT for Development, and Free Expression Myanmar, has led a national conversation on the issue. Drawing on expertise from the region and international organizations, 22 local Burma-based organizations have been successful in pointing out gaps when it comes to privacy and freedom of expression in the national telecommunications law, a comprehensive law that oversees the development of the telecommunications sector in Burma. They also participated in meetings with the government and launched a public facing campaign #ourvoiceourhluttaw pushing to amend 23 articles, including one on lawful interception of data.

“Messaging applications such as Viber and Facebook Messenger, for example, are the de-facto tool for communication for activists and are used to organize political events and activities.”

5. Personal Safety and Security

In Pakistan, women face threats of physical, sexual, and psychological harassment online. Leaking explicit photos and threats of blackmail are growing increasingly more common. From 2014 to 2015, more than 3,000 cybercrimes were reported to the Federal Investigation Agency and of those cases, nearly half were targeted to women on social media. Observers estimate far more cases go unreported. In fact, in workshops conducted by the The Digital Rights Foundation, many female college students reported that they did not know cyber harassment was a crime.

Online platforms are an important space for political engagement, expression, and mobilization in Pakistan. Thus, online harassment directly impacts the political participation of women, including female journalists and women politicians. In 2016 the Digital Rights Foundation established a Cyber Harassment Helpline that women can reach out to for help when they are harassed on the Internet. One of the main objective of the helpline is to help bridge the trust deficit between survivors and law enforcement agencies. An analysis of more than 400 cases showed that the most common barriers to equal participation are non-consensual use of information, impersonation, account hacking, black mailing, and receiving unsolicited messages; the most targeted groups include women, children, human rights defenders, and minority communities. The Digital Rights Foundation has also been leading efforts to strengthen legal protections for women and responding to survivors by recommendations to law enforcement agencies and the government. Pakistan has a National Response Centre for Cybercrime, but it has faced challenges serving women outside of major cities.

6. Inclusion

In India, the population of people with disabilities is estimated to be as high as 150 million people, and the recorded rates of those who are vision-impaired are among the highest in the world. Indian digital rights advocacy groups, like the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) have worked to ensure that these individuals are able to participate fully online by promoting policies that prioritize accessibility. These include the National Policy on Universal Electronics Accessibility, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, and Guidelines for Indian Government Web (GIGW), which all require government information be shared in formats that are accessible. Advocacy groups, however, have successfully shown that policies alone are not enough and have taken action to ensure persons with disabilities have access to critical resources and information online.

Mobile phones in particular are a vital portal to access government services, but mobile applications remain largely inaccessible to many people with disabilities, especially those with vision disabilities. For example, CIS observed in 2015 that the MyGov, the Indian Government’s mobile citizen engagement platform and the Prime Minister’s application was highly inaccessible: screens cannot be navigated by visually impaired users and can also not be read using a screen reader. Based on this, CIS with other advocacy organizations worked on framing accessibility guidelines for mobile applications recommended to the Government of India as a standard. Advocacy groups, such as the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), have also been appealing to the private sector to ensure products designed to serve these needs are affordable and readily available to people with disabilities. They appeal to Indian companies and policymakers by advocating for the universal appeal of assistive technology to ensure disabled communities are not left behind.

Sustained advocacy, new legal mandates applied to public and private sectors, and increased research in this domain have helped advance the issue of accessibility of mobile applications. The country’s National Informatics Centre has set up a committee to revise the GIGW to bring them up to speed with international standards.

7. Network Equality

A government-enforced Internet shutdown in Cameroon denied online access to a significant portion of the country’s population for more than three months in early 2017. The shutdown targeted the Anglophone region of the country, an area historically marginalized by the French-speaking majority. In the lead up to the Internet blackout, the Cameroonian government publicly warned Internet users there would be criminal penalties for any actions to spread false news on social media in the Anglophone region. Despite the government’s claim that this action would prevent the spread of false information, most observers held that the government aimed to stem recent protests by limiting connections to social media messaging applications and other online communication platforms. Activists believe the government was acutely aware of the critical role the Internet played in organizing protests.

Digital rights groups unaffected by the shutdown launched a global social media campaign, #bringbackourInternet, to raise awareness about the shutdown. They sought to lead efforts to apply local, pan-African and international pressure on the government. They also directly engaged Camtel, the country’s national telecommunications company. Finally, startups created an “Internet refugee camp,” where members brought portable Internet modems for others to use instead of driving to the next largest city, Douala, to use the Internet. Through these efforts, the Cameroonian technology and activist communities raised global awareness about the shutdown, applying pressure on the government.

8. Standards

Communicating safely and securely online is a challenge for democracy activists and journalists everywhere. In the last ten years, global advocacy groups Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have called on website owners to support HTTPS, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol with an additional S for “secure.”

Using an HTTPS site helps ensure that users connect to the sites they intend to, and that content transferred between the website server and a user’s browser is less susceptible to surveillance or interference. The extra layer of security makes it less likely for government agents, internet service providers, or hackers to surveil users online. Without HTTPS, an agent could replace news stories or Wikipedia entries with alternative content, track readers’ habits, and even intercept passwords.

Since the original HTTPS protocol was released in 1995, it has become an industry standard for offering encryption and content authentication on the Internet. In 2010, Google modified its search engine to make browsers send search queries through HTTPS and Wikipedia and Facebook also later adopted HTTPs by default. Media organizations such as the BBC, Washington Post, and The New York Times have also migrated to HTTPS. Today, the average volume of encrypted traffic surpasses unencrypted traffic.

Despite greater awareness, there is more to be done, says the Freedom of the Press Foundation, pointing out that several major international news sites have not yet migrated their sites to HTTPS, including Al Jazeera, El Mundo (Spain), France 24 (France), Xinhua News Agency (China), and The Hindu (India). Through global advocacy campaigns, CDT and EFF have also educated industry players on the benefits of HTTPS. Migration tools such as Let’s Encrypt, a service developed by the Internet Security Research Group, and EFF’s browser plug-in, HTTPS://everywhere, support the needs of smaller site owners and users. Importantly, these groups view having segmented advocacy strategies for stakeholder groups, including tailored messages, as an important strategy to furthering awareness and action.

“Using an HTTPS site helps ensure that users connect to the sites they intend to, and that content transferred between the website server and a user's browser is less susceptible to surveillance or interference.”

9. Governance

In Nepal, the national chapter of the Internet Society has led efforts to create a national multistakeholder governance structure that includes government, civil society, and the private sector by organizing a national Internet Governance Forum. In so doing, they have sought to ensure decisions about Internet policy include the participation of all the stakeholders affected.

In 2009, Shreedeep Rayamajhi and a group of activists launched the Internet Society chapter in Nepal. After attending the global Internet Governance Forums (IGF), a multi-stakeholder policy conference organized under the auspices of the United Nations, the Nepalese digital rights activists decided to plan their own IGF in Nepal. This took place in the context where abuse of citizen rights online mounted and awareness about the lack of specific laws and regulations to protect them grew. There was a growing sense among civil society groups that a new platform needed to be developed to discuss these issues.

Through IGF Nepal meeting and the work of the Nepalese Internet Society chapter, these activists are able to provide platforms for people, particularly youth, to discuss their vision and strategies for fostering a more open and safe Internet in Nepal and share these ideas with global policymakers. Importantly, they view it as the beginning of a larger effort to develop a mechanism for engaging the domestic and international policymaking community, which still has a developing level of understanding around how Internet governance issues are understood and implemented in the Global South.


Civil society groups in the Global South are on the front lines of defending and strengthening Internet freedom. At this critical moment in the Internet’s development, efforts to preserve the openness of the internet and protect it against those seeking to undermine it are critical step to-wards consolidating democracy globally. To this end, activists are building digital rights movements from the ground up, launching national policy dialogues, and fighting to establish new norms and Internet standards. Understanding which of these efforts are successful, and sharing this knowledge, is a vital step to protecting the critical democratic functions of the Internet.

These case studies provide a snapshot of promising efforts led by civil society to secure a more democratic future, whether it is promoting citizen awareness about a digital rights issue, advocating for a national policy, or promoting an Internet standard. But they only provide a small window into a much bigger story. We are eager to hear about more efforts to defend and protect democratic dialogue and action online. If you have a story, please write to us. By exchanging strategies and know-how we can improve upon current efforts and build cross-region solidarity. In the long run this will be essential to making sure the Internet remains an open and democratic platform.

About the Author

Sarah Oh is a visiting scholar at The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute and leads a social impact strategy firm based in San Francisco. From 2014 to 2016, she helped establish Phandeeyar: Myanmar Innovation Lab, a tech hub supporting activists and startups in Myanmar during the country’s transition to democracy. In 2013, she was named National Democratic Institute (NDI)’s first representative in Silicon Valley. Before NDI, Sarah worked as communications consultant to Fortune 100 technology companies. She began her career as a democracy researcher, studying and working in Cameroon, Panama, and France. Sarah earned a B.A. with honors from Northwestern University.

Sarah Oh Headshot
Sarah Oh


  • Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski, “Liberation Vs. Control: The Future of Cyberspace,” in Liberation Technology: Social Media and the Struggle for Democracy, Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner (eds.), (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).