Bread&Net is an annual unconference that promotes and defends digital rights across Arabic speaking countries. Hosted by SMEX, Bread&Net is a platform built for and sustained by hundreds of activists, technologists, journalists, researchers, lawyers, academics, entrepreneurs, and human rights defenders from around the world, with a particular focus on digital rights and digital freedoms in Arabic-speaking countries.
The Arabic-speaking region faces both dramatic challenges and promising opportunities at the intersection of technology, democracy, and human rights. Communities living in the region have struggled to protect their freedoms and privacy while coping with rampant violations of their human rights, often amid larger political and economic instability. Nonetheless, the digital space remains invaluable for grassroots organizing to dismantle oppressive systems, expressing dissent, and producing knowledge.
In Palestine, we saw tech companies and the Israeli occupation collude to censor Palestinian voices. In the Gulf region, states are increasing their investments in digital economies and spy-tech, fortifying their surveillance infrastructure. At the same time, Big tech companies are expanding their collaboration with these authoritarian regimes. In Syria, documentation uploaded online has played a crucial role in the pursuit of accountability for crimes against humanity. In the post Covid-19 reality, privacy concerns continue to be on the rise. Activists and civil society organisations have struggled to hold Big Tech accountable for the impact of their business models and policies on freedoms, both online and in real life . Nonetheless, collaboration and coalition-building in the civic sphere has created a powerful front of defense against digital threats to democracy and human rights. The Bread&Net themes listed below seek to capture the challenges we’re facing, build on the progress we’ve made, and discuss where we go next.
The Internet is embedded in a structure of governance that is informed by transnational corporate interests and by governmental laws. Time after time, we have repeatedly seen how policies and decision-making at the corporate and governmental levels have often compromised online freedoms of the people in our region. The haphazard and uninformed content moderation of the Palestinian narrative proves the inadequacy of these policies to protect those who are struggling to make their voices heard as they seek essential freedoms, online and offline. These policies are often inherently biased and reflect a lack of a comprehensive understanding of political and social nuances specific to our region. There is also a serious absence of accountability in relation to policies both removed and indifferent to marginalized communities in the Arabic-speaking region. Middle East and North Africa.
This theme explores the relationship between the business models and political structures that operate today, and the control exerted in online spaces to uphold and sustain those systems. More specifically, we are asking: How is our region vulnerable to online policy practices that violate human rights, social justice, and freedoms? And how can we respond to these violations on a regional level?
Policy advocacy in difficult contexts topics include:
The digital leap following the pandemic has significantly reshaped our methods of personal and professional communication, rendering digital security a matter of consistent practice rather than a personal preference.
In a region saturated with internet surveillance and human rights violations, how are communities creating structures of support, mutual learning, and solidarity? How can we facilitate such structures? And what are the urgent threats faced by individuals and communities in the region?
Digital Security in Practice topics include:
Technology has brought us tools that allow us to overcome and survive state oppression and disempowering Internet policies. This has helped defend civic space online and offline, especially when the pandemic blurred the lines between the two.
This plays a significant role in fostering safe spaces to explore, practice, research, construct, preserve and disseminate our cultural narratives both locally and globally. How can we as artists, academics, activists, journalists, Internet researchers, and others leverage these tools and platforms to sustainably promote access to information and open culture in the face of a wide range of barriers, including national disasters, censorship, language restrictions, content moderation, and intellectual property rights?
Technology as Resource topics include:
Censorship, surveillance, hate speech and misinformation have posed serious threats to freedom of expression and communal resistance among vulnerable peoples in societies under political, economic and cultural hegemony. Global lockdowns and curfews have also created a new landscape of digital existence that is not easily accessible to everyone, which leads to excluding some people from their social circles. Regionally, this shift has also disadvantaged marginalized communities who relied on physical assembly to support one another as they process and advance their respective causes.
What sort of practices can communities adopt to maintain digital and physical environments that cherish safe communication in the struggle for collective emancipation? How are we taking care of our mental and physical well-being in these times of worldwide uncertainty?
Resistance Communities topics include:
Over the past decade, civil society has become dependent on digital networks and tools for advocacy efforts and as a means of mobilization.
In our region, however, the advantages that these networks and tools afford have been mitigated by increasingly restrictive laws, scaled-up mass surveillance, disinformation campaigns, and crackdowns on online freedom of expression. The resulting constriction of the online civic space has only fostered stronger advocacy during such a critical time. From Covid-19 to political unrest across the region, the first half of 2021 has already exposed the intensifying digital threats that exist in different yet difficult contexts across the region.
The three previous editions of Bread&Net successfully nurtured and expanded a regional digital rights community by offering an open and safe space for participants to discuss issues ranging from state-surveillance to content moderation and knowledge production in the digital rights community.
Founded in 2008, SMEX is a Lebanese NGO that works regionally to defend digital rights, promote open culture and local content, and encourage critical engagement with digital technologies, media, and networks across the SWANA region. We conduct research, training, and advocacy on internet policy and digital rights to support the expansion of more accessible and participatory environments for individuals and civil society across the MENA region.
SMEX is currently working on building a network of digital rights within Arabic-speaking countries, while running the Digital Safety Helpdesk, which assists users in responding to digital threats such as harassment, wrongful suspensions, and harmful content online. We also document detentions related to free expression on our Muhal database. To learn more, visit our website: smex.org