Sur 27 – Letter to the readers

Oliver Hudson & Mary Grisales

Editors – Sur International Journal on Human Rights

Mariana Valente & Natália Neris

Guest editors – Internet Lab

Fábio Balestro

Guest Editor – Friedrich Ebert Foundation

The Sur File on Internet and Democracy

Internet penetration rates continue to climb year on year, with an estimated 54.4 per cent of the world’s population online at the end of 2017. Compared to the year 2000, when just 5.4 per cent of us were online, this represents a staggering growth of over 1000 per cent in just over 8 years.11. See and 2018 is a bumper election year – with elections taking place in various counties around the world including Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Mexico, Russia and Turkey. While most of us would acknowledge that the Internet is indeed having an impact on democracy, harder to articulate is perhaps exactly how this is happening. The contributions to the Sur File on Internet and Democracy do exactly this, unpacking the various ways that the web is weaving its way into the democratic process around the world. The overarching message that comes across in all texts is that policy makers – both in the public and private spheres – are falling behind and this needs to be urgently addressed to ensure we harness the positive elements of the Internet and limit the negatives.

Taming the beast

Kicking off the Sur File, Renata Ávila (Guatemala) argues that before examining questions of privacy and security, we need to take a step back and take a more macro view and recognise that we are at risk of entering a new colonial age, that of digital colonialism. Global South countries in particular are increasingly held hostage by a small group of countries and companies who posses the majority of technological knowledge. To avoid this from happening, Ávila calls for urgent action to be taken both at the national, regional and international level to ensure that less powerful countries retain their digital sovereignty.

Echoing the need for urgent action at different levels, Ted Piconne (US) focuses on how governments and the private sector are struggling to keep up with digital technology specifically in relation to free and fair elections, human rights, and Internet governance. He offers a concrete set of policy recommendations, including action points for civil society, that he sees as imperative to harness the benefits of technology.

Anita Gurumurthy and Deepti Bharthur (India) analyse how the the misuse of algorithms by public and private actors are threatening the democratic process – both during elections but also in more mundane, but no less worrying, ways in the day-to-day running of government. This, they argue, is having a disastrous impact on citizens’ rights, for example access to welfare provisions. Recognising that there is also much to be gained from algorithms in the context of democracy, the authors appeal for urgent revision of corporate and public policies to guarantee the appropriate use of algorithms.

Net neutrality

Jonathan Perri (US) from the petitioning website, offers an institutional reflection on the organisation’s campaign for net neutrality. It marked the first time the site had run its own petition, reflecting the importance of the issue both for the site and for citizen participation as a whole. He explains how the petitioning website used its well-known brand to build a large network of net neutrality supporters and how they are still working to put pressure on the US Federal Communications Commission to reverse the decision.

The future of net neutrality is not clear. Offering some hope on the matter, David Kaye (US) – the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression – explains in an interview with the Sur Journal how net neutrality is a critical component of democracy. It guarantees access to information, a central tenant to freedom of opinion and expression, which in turn is fundamental to a functioning democracy. He also touches on the question of fake news. He sees the solution as needing to be as much about increased media literacy and support for independent journalism as any legislative one, which can be open to abuse by repressive governments that use the issue as a guise to crackdown on freedom of expression.

(Anti) social media

For Marcio Ribeiro and Pablo Ortellado, fake news is a concept that is under dispute and, to some extent, inadequate to define the current and complex phenomenon that involves various disinformation technologies and a growing polarisation of the public sphere. Through an analysis of social media behaviour during the trial of former Brazilian president Lula da Silva in January 2018, the authors reveal the emergence of a hyperpartisan media that produces hostile and extremely polarised information, while transforming and limiting the political debate in Brazil into a clash between two narratives.

In asking whether social media is good or bad for democracy, Cass Sunstein (US) sees the issue of group polarisation at the crux of the matter. Social media platforms increasingly seek to offer users material that is most relevant to them, which, evidence shows, simply results in polarising users’ opinions. Additionally, he argues such an approach robs us of key principles of self-government including being exposed to content we were not expecting and the ability to determine fact from fiction. He appeals to social media giants to stop pursuing this route and set us free from our echo chambers.

While the question of misinformation and propaganda has been a problem for a number of years, Lucy Purdon (UK) argues that it has only garnered worldwide attention following the 2016 US elections and the Brexit referendum in the UK. She highlights, for example, how inflammatory social media content fuelled the violence during the 2013 Kenyan elections, yet the issue received little or no press attention. Furthermore, she explains how Global North political consulting firms are also interfering with Kenyan elections (largely out of the spotlight in comparison to their increasingly prevalent role in the North). Their willingness to harvest users’ social media data in a country that lacks sufficient data protection is particularly alarming. The data pool that these companies can draw from set to increase as biometric voter registration is introduced without any proper framework on how this data is managed.


The article by Mariana Valente and Natalia Neris (Brazil) discusses the paradoxical course of the relationship between feminism and the internet. Changes both in feminism and in the growth and reach of the internet have enabled new forms of activism and organisation for women, but this, in response, has also given rise to new types of misogynist violence. On International Women’s Week in Brazil, Facebook served as a platform for the female authors to analyse the polarisation of the Brazilian public sphere into hate discourse against women and a strong feminist counter-discourse. Feminising the internet is a task that presents enormous challenges for the current feminist agenda in a context of concentration of online activity and poor digital security.

Reem Al Masri (Jordan) describes how important Facebook’s live streaming service is for activists in Jordan, given that the state makes it almost impossible for open protest. Simultaneously however, this presents a dilemma for activists; many would prefer to follow the global calls to leave the platform, following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, the service remains the only realistic outlet for protest in the country.



Addressing state violence in Brazil, a group of researchers together with the Mothers of May Independent Movement presents the results of research that aims to clarify the Crimes of May (Brazil) in 2006 in the Baixada Santista coastal area of São Paulo state. The article exposes the rights violations reported by the families of the victims and reveals a systematic violence perpetrated by the state, which has neglected investigations, shelved cases, denied access by the families to information and even attempted to criminalise the victims to avoid prosecuting those responsible for the crimes. Justice, memory and reparation are the focus of this article that gives visibility to the struggle of the families that for years have contended with impunity and the denial of rights by the state.

Nathalia Oliveira and Lucia Sestokas (Brazil), drawing on the work developed by the Land, Labor and Citizenship Institute (ITTC) in Brazil, discuss the impact of drug policies on incarceration in various countries. Given the increase in the female prison population in Brazil and its correlation with the country’s failed drug policy, they call attention to the need to analyse the intersections between drug policy, the judicial system and the specifics of gender in order to reduce inequalities and guarantee women’s rights.


In an interview with Sur Journal, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky (Argentina) – the UN’s Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights – explained why it is important for states to undertake a human rights impact assessment when conducting economic reform policies. Given that governments are implementing austerity measures at an alarming rate, there is a particular urgency for such impact assessment to ensure that the rights of the most vulnerable are taken into account.


Recognising that one of the struggles that the human rights movement is currently facing is how it communicates to different, often more critical audiences, the Sur Journal is committed to showcasing new and creative forms of dialogue. We are therefore delighted to include photographs of the work of 8 artists who competed for the 2017 Hong Kong Human Rights Arts Prize run by the Justice Centre Hong Kong.


In a posthumous publication and as a way for us to recognise and honour a tireless human rights defender in Brazil, we have the privilege to feature a text written by Marielle Franco (Brazil). It is the transcript of an oral statement made in 2017 containing data from her master’s research, in which Marielle vehemently criticises Rio de Janeiro’s UPPs (Police Pacification Units) that in practice have only escalated the militarisation of the city and, as a result, increased the criminalisation and violence in the favelas, where the main victims are black youth.

The Oxfam scandal was a defining moment for the NGO sector. In her op-ed for Sur Journal, Deborah Doanne (UK) argues that the sector has two choices – either to continue unchanged or to see the scandals as an opportunity to disrupt the sector and its existing systems. Doanne calls on Global South organisations to play a central role in this reorganisation to ensure that old power balances are addressed.


Conectas would like to emphasise that this issue of Sur Journal was made possible with the support of the Channel Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Open Society Foundations, the Oak Foundation, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), as well as some anonymous donors.

We are also extremely thankful to the following people for assisting with this issue: Adriana Guimarães, Amanda Fazano, Andre Degenszajn, Beatriz Kira, Celina Lagrutta, Dennys Antonialli, Evandro Lisboa Freire, Fernanda Fogaça Dourado, Fernando Campos Leza, Fernando Sciré, Francisco Cruz, Jacqueline de Souza Abreu, Julia Lima, Karen Lang, Lilian Cintra de Melo, Pedro Maia Soares, Renato Barreto, Sebastián Porrua Schiess, Sil Bahia, Thiago Amparo, Thiago Dias Oliva, Vivian Calderoni. Additionally, we are especially grateful for the collaboration of the authors and the hard work of the Journal’s editorial team and executive board.

As ever, the members of the communication team from Conectas deserve great credit for their dedication to this issue.