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Protecting our right to online freedoms

  • 16 April 2020
It’s 1 April 2020 and as I write my kids, 5 and 7, are sound asleep in our home in the outskirts of Florence, Italy, while the official figure of persons infected with coronavirus in the country has reached over 100,000. The whole country, including our family is under lock-down. Schools are closed. We can only leave our house with a ‘self-declaration’ form, undersigning that we are moving only to the permissible designated places and the police can stop and question us at any time.

Homework is done through YouTube channels set up by teachers, making films to connect with school and watching online messages from kindergarten friends who miss each other. We work remotely, in shifts, to keep things going.

But then, there was this highlight: an online activity passed around through WhatsApp school groups. Kids were asked to draw or paint rainbows and put them in their windows for others to see in person and share on-line. The point is to send a message and create an online connection among an isolated community in order to lift the spirits. The message: ‘tutto andrà bene’, meaning ‘everything will be OK’. A message of hope in these sad and confusing times for children, if not for us all.

And this led me to a realisation — the internet and the online spaces are indeed becoming our ‘lifeline’ for expression and assembly. And to an appeal, this lifeline is under threat and deserves much more protection than it currently has under international law. We now have an immediate opportunity to remedy that.

We became aware of the spread of the COVID-19 in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China. Importantly though, it also began with a grave violation of the right to freedom of expression, of information and of assembly — online. 

Dr Ai Fen, in a recent interview with The Guardian, explained how on 30th December last year she received test results of a patient with ‘SARS - Coronavirus’ and shared this with her doctor friend. Soon, the results and news of the virus were circulating through online chats (’WeChat’) used by the medical community in Wuhan to gather and share information, including the now deceased whistle-blower Dr Li Wenliang. According to reports, Dr Ai was summoned by the hospital administration to ‘stop spreading rumours about a virus’ and could resort only to warning her staff to wear protective gear. Dr Li Wenliag was