This interview is part of a collaborative effort between the summer 2018 BKC interns and the Communications team to showcase the tremendous work and backgrounds of our 2018 -'19 BKC fellows
Jessica Dheere, who co-founded the Beirut-based digital rights advocacy organization SMEX, wants activists, policymakers, and researchers to be able to better observe, understand, and act on emerging legal trends in digital rights around the world. For the past four years she has helped illuminate national legal frameworks for digital rights in the Arab world through the Arab Digital Rights Datasets, a collection of laws from Arab League countries that affect human rights in digitally networked spaces.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been developing a methodological foundation for gathering, categorizing, and analyzing bills, laws, and case law related to digital rights. This legal data, which consists of more than 500 documents and is searchable by country, keyword, and other parameters, is now accessible in an open database accessible at cyrilla.org. While it’s great to have so much legal information in one place, making this information accessible is only the first step in answering larger questions, such as, "What human rights-related legal trends are emerging in the governance of new technologies?" "How are jurisdictions learning from each other as judgments travel the world?" and "What kind of impact might this governance be having on concepts of human rights, civic space, and rule of law?"
"What human rights-related legal trends are emerging in the governance of new technologies?" "How are jurisdictions learning from each other as judgments travel the world?" and "What kind of impact might this governance be having on concepts of human rights, civic space, and rule of law?"
So, I am going to use my time at the Berkman Klein Center — and the access that the Center affords to leaders in cyberlaw and legal informatics and a range of other fields that touch on a project like this — to chip away at pieces of these questions in a couple of ways. First, working with partners, lawyers, and techies, I’ll continue refining the research methodology, data model, and issue taxonomies with an eye toward making them as usable as possible for both human readers and machines. And second, using insights gathered from the data collected so far, I plan to research a specific topic, such as the development of anti-cybercrime or anti-terrorism legislation in the Arab region and its impact on digital rights.
Digital rights are human rights as they manifest in digitally networked spaces. But the concept really begs more questions than it answers.
You’ve been speaking about digital rights — what specifically are digital rights?
Simply put, digital rights are human rights as they manifest in digitally networked spaces. But the concept really begs more questions than it answers. When developing the research methodology, one of the first things I did was look for a definition of digital rights. I quickly learned that despite the fact that many advocacy organizations use the term “digital rights,” no definitive definition existed. So, building on research, and in particular the 2015 article “Toward Digital Constitutionalism: Mapping Attempts to Craft an Internet Bill of Rights,” written by Lex Gill, Dennis Redeker, and BKC’s executive director Urs Gasser, that catalogued at least 42 different rights that had been included in charters of internet rights, I created a working definition of digital rights to establish some common ground and help guide researchers when combing through legislation. You can see it here.
I created a working definition of digital rights to establish some common ground and help guide researchers when combing through legislation.
I’m still pretty conflicted on whether we should keep using the term, which I suspect initially emerged from the copyright wars and “digital rights management.” But I think it will be tough to get rid of it, since it’s become an encompassing shorthand for the range of human rights issues that can emerge in digitally networked spaces.
What led you to this work?
I’m a former artist, architect, and design editor who has always had a thing for technology. In 2005, I started a master’s degree in media studies at the New School in New York. That program was equal parts theory and practice, so I learned about producing audio narratives and ethical dilemmas in communications side by side. In the summer of 2006, I took a trip to Cyprus, where I have family, and from there made my way to Lebanon, a place I’d always wanted to go.
I’m a former artist, architect, and design editor who has always had a thing for technology.
All this coincided with the advent of social media and super-small devices that created the new notion of the independent multimedia journalist. Because the New School had the option of taking classes online even at that time, I decided to stay in Lebanon and continue my degree, even as I was reporting and conceptualizing what would ultimately become the organization my partner Mohamad and I founded in 2008, SMEX (it used to be Social Media Exchange, but we shortened it to avoid being asked to manage people’s social media accounts, which we never did).
My first foray into the legislative arena of digital rights came in 2010, with a proposed e-transactions law, which had some troubling provisions. We organized a 36-hour campaign and succeeded in postponing the law, which still hasn’t been passed. Then, later that year, the so-called Arab Spring began in Tunis. It was long after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the uprisings they sparked elsewhere that governments in the region — no longer in denial about the power of social media in the hands of motivated people — began using the law and other tactics to crack down on online dissent as had been common with opposition over other channels for decades. We began seeing a whole host of statutes being applied to punish or curb online free expression, from penal codes and press laws to anti-terror or even drug laws. At the same time, new legislation — particularly anti-cybercrime laws — also began to proliferate, often without any sort of public comment.
We began seeing a whole host of statutes being applied to punish or curb online free expression, from penal codes and press laws to anti-terror or even drug laws. At the same time, new legislation — particularly anti-cybercrime laws — also began to proliferate, often without any sort of public comment.There were a lot of red lines being drawn.
There were a lot of red lines being drawn. One Egyptian journalist likened the situation to a legal minefield. And so we started asking our friends what the laws were and cataloguing them, first in seven countries. When we released this dataset, people couldn’t believe that this information actually existed. They were really inspired and volunteers offered to map the remaining Arab countries. We uploaded that dataset to a platform called Silk, which no longer exists, but which allowed us to visualize these legal frameworks in on maps, in tables, and bar charts.
Through this more digestible version of the datasets, we started to talk to and meet others struggling to map their own legal environments for digital rights, in initiatives like RedLatam and ictpolicy.org, in Latin America and Africa. This encouraged us to take the Arab Digital Rights Datasets a step farther and expand the data points collected to make the information more granular and combinable with other datasets, so that researchers, journalists, and human rights lawyers could ultimately manipulate the data and visualize it, to get a better picture, literally, of legal trends in digital rights. By definition, we can’t see digital space or the law, so our goal is to use this legal data to make both more visible so that we can more readily identify and respond to actions or policies that might threaten its openness.
By definition, we can’t see digital space or the law, so our goal is to use this legal data to make both more visible so that we can more readily identify and respond to actions or policies that might threaten its openness.
Thinking back to earlier in your academic career, when you were just starting undergrad, is this where you thought you would be? How did you get into the space?
Absolutely not. For one thing, the Internet barely existed when I was an undergraduate. I used to go to the computer lab and access resources on gopher. I don’t think we had university email addresses until my senior year, and mobile phones were not a thing.
But I didn’t have a clear idea of what kind of career I wanted. I was an art history major, and minored in Latin American studies. I knew I loved traveling and being abroad — I spent my junior year in Mexico — but after graduation, I wasn’t sure how to make that happen. I couldn’t just Google it.
In retrospect, though, I can trace a strange little progression from my art history degree to where I am now, because studying art forces you to learn to look at the actual form of things, to be present and see what’s actually there. This helps a lot when looking at digital media too, and perhaps even when reading law or trying to conceptualize virtual environments through law and policy.
That’s really inspiring, especially to students who don’t know what they’re doing right now, or what their future is supposed to look like.
Well, I’m glad it’s inspiring, though the uncertainty of it all definitely means it’s not always easy. I’ve had a lot of fun exploring different paths, but it does come with compromises and sometimes instability. That said, it also creates flexibility that allows me to pursue opportunities like the BKC fellowship. It’s such a gift, at this point in my career, to be able to take a year to focus on this one project that I’m so passionate about without the distractions of running an organization.
It’s such a gift, at this point in my career, to be able to take a year to focus on this one project that I’m so passionate about without the distractions of running an organization.
Well, we were going to ask about what you were most looking forward to during the fellowship, but you already answered that! So here’s our last question — what’s something you're proud of, but you never get to brag about?
Well, I just bought a place of my own near Blue Hill, Maine. And my friends will tell you that I talk about it every chance I get. I’m spending the summer fixing it up, and I’m particularly proud of my home improvement skills, my growing powertool collection, and my small but colorful perennial garden. What I didn’t realize, though, before moving here was that I was also moving to the other side of the digital divide. Much of our peninsula is unserved or underserved by rural broadband, according to FCC definitions, so we’re organizing to change that.
Tess is a third year at the George Washington University Law School, originally from Texas. During undergrad at Trinity University, Tess majored in math and focused on large data sets. In law school, she's been focusing on cybersecurity and data privac. During the summer of 2018, she worked with the Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data project.
Areeba is in her second year of law school at Michigan. In the future, Areeba hopes to work somewhere around the intersection of privacy, data security, 4th amendment and criminal justice reform. During the summer of 2018, Areeba worked with the Cyberlaw Clinic.