Virtual climate justice

Saksham Singh | Updated on July 21, 2021

Environmental rights will be fought digitally

In 2020, the public consultation process around the Environmental Impact Assessment (Draft) notification received nearly two million emails. It didn’t take long for citizens, activists and experts to criticise the intent and timing. The notification was questioned for laissez faire provisions to industries, post-facto clearances, and diluted environmental norms.

Several emails were sent by student climate activist groups such as ‘LetIndiaBreathe’, ‘FridayForFutures’ and others. The authorities responded by blocking their websites and social media handles.

This came close on the heels of internet service providers (ISPs) arbitrarily blocking DuckDuckGo, the privacy protecting search engine. Such hounding of environmental groups online led to digital rights groups such as the Internet Freedom Foundation and others questioning such actions. The ‘blocks’ were later lifted following their continued outcry.

Relatedly, in February 2021, Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old student climate activist faced the full brunt of the state over an online toolkit. Environmental and digital rights had converged.

In June, Twitter received multiple notices from the authorities on posts by citizens and environmental activists protesting the construction of a wall on the Vainguinim beach in Goa by a hotel. The theme of freedom of expression online towards environment-related concerns becomes resoundingly apparent.

Tech for democracy?

Access to the internet has been endorsed as a fundamental right by the UN and the Supreme Court of India. Yet, the digital divide continues not just in terms of access, but also gender and literacy. At a time when tech and democracy are more intertwined than ever, tech-based solutions can exacerbate inequalities.

In India, several human rights activists and journalists critical of the government were allegedly surveilled through the sophisticated Pegasus software.

India has regularly topped global lists for highest number of internet shutdowns, with 109 such instances in 2020 alone. Twitter, with only 55 million Indian users, regularly receives take-down requests of posts and cartoons deemed critical of the government, by the government.

Big Tech has been under pressure for a lack of commitment to climate mitigation. In 2020, Google fired the maverick engineer Timnit Gebru who wrote a paper bringing to light the environmental costs of AI algorithms. It questioned how they shift climate risks to the marginalised and poor at the risk of climate change.

It is no surprise that Big Tech has been inept in dealing with inequalities and bias within their own structures. Supporting inclusive tech and environmental rights is no longer a choice between the two.

Within India, the environmental movement has often converged with those against caste discrimination, tribal and labour rights. With skewed resource distribution within communities, the fight for the environment converges with the rights for the socially disadvantaged and minorities. The Chipko movement had its roots in the fight against caste discrimination.

In this tussle between environment and development, there is increasing resistance, globally and within India. Journalists and activists protesting illegal sand mining or deforestation have been met with FIRs and physical violence.

The authorities also crack down on dissentious posts online and rely on unchecked technologies such as AI- powered facial recognition. Similarities with Shoshana Zuboff’s seminal work on surveillance capitalism are rife.

Convergences of climate justice movement with digital rights for an open and accountable internet would be a win-win for all. Freedoms protected online would mean real-world gains offline.

The writer is a researcher in behavioural and development economics

Published on July 21, 2021

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