The interview is republished from akademik.mk.
Bardhyl Jashari, Executive Director of the Metamorphosis Foundation
Metamorphosis is a non-governmental organization that has been working for 15 years to protect human rights on the Internet and to educate citizens about their rights on the Internet, among other things. What are your findings, is there a positive growth in the knowledge of Internet rights among citizens?
The digital rights challenges have been addressed by the Metamorphosis Foundation since its inception in 2004. Because our mission as an organization is to increase the quality of life through the use of digital technologies, then, as well as now, our focus is on protecting and promoting online privacy and freedom of expression. We believe that the use, but also the benefits of the Internet and other digital technologies will increase if the Internet users feel free and safe and if they are sure that their personal data will not be misused.
Many things have changed since then. First, the number of Internet users has drastically increased, then the content available on the Internet has increased, the number of services available through the Internet has also increased, for which we often have to enter our personal data, thus the challenges have normally increased. Both in the world and in our country, there were various problems related to the misuse of personal data. This, in turn, has helped users to be cautious and aware of human rights challenges, but above all in terms of privacy. They started to educate themselves, but also to look for opportunities for education, and at the same time to demand accountability from the companies that offer digital services but also from the state. On the other hand, states have begun to harmonize laws and enact new laws and policies in order to ensure the protection of citizens’ personal data. From the very beginning, Metamorphosis, in cooperation with other NGOs, has been working with the citizens through trainings and campaigns for raising knowledge and public awareness of privacy. At the same time, we cooperate with companies that offer digital services, but also with the relevant state institutions that are responsible for personal data protection, to contribute to the creation of a legal framework and a digital ecosystem in general, in which citizens will feel free, competent and safe to use digital technologies and experience the benefits of the inevitable digital transformation of our society. Today the awareness and knowledge of the challenges related to privacy, but also with other rights on the Internet have increased, of course with the development of technology the challenges change, so we all constantly need to monitor, educate and react when there is a need for it. We need to make sure human integrity and human rights remain at the core of the digital transformation.
You recently signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Agency for Personal Data Protection – a great initiative of a government and a non-governmental organization that have a common goal – the education of citizens to protect their personal data. What activities do you plan for this purpose?
In February 2020, the new Law on Personal Data Protection in Macedonia was adopted, which is fully harmonized with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The new law entered into force on 24 August 2021. According to this law, all legal entities in our country should harmonize their internal procedures and policies with the new law, and the project implemented by Metamorphosis, supported by the so-called EU Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, will help implement these measures for civil society organizations, state institutions and the business sector.
The new regulation gives citizens more power by increasing their rights to control the processing of their data. The project aims to make these benefits and privileges closer and more obvious to the citizens. We will work together with the Agency for Personal Data Protection in educating the citizens about their privacy rights arising from the new law, and at the same time, we will work together in building the capacities of the responsible data protection officers in the state institutions – to develop and implement standards that will ensure effective protection of citizens’ privacy rights online – especially when using e-services.
The project will also organize trainings for other NGOs to engage in online privacy advocacy and to competently express their privacy concerns and the application of artificial intelligence to all relevant stakeholders: government, businesses, etc.
You have many contacts and cooperation with different organizations from many countries in the world. If we were to compare the level of protection of rights on the Internet, where would Macedonia be positioned in relation to other countries in the world?
With the Internet and globalization, the challenges in Macedonia and the world are similar and common, but the important difference is in the capacity of the institutions to effectively deal with the challenges and consequences of the digital transformation on human rights and especially the commitment of stakeholders to address them. Most of the institutions in our country do not have the necessary resources, capacities and knowledge to deal with those challenges. Cyber security is becoming very important and directly affects human rights, but in our country, although there are initiatives and strategies, there is still no systemic approach or capacity to deal with these problems. That makes it harder. That is why joint efforts and stronger cooperation are needed between state actors – government, parliament, judiciary, Directorate for Personal Data Protection, private companies, academia, NGOs, international organizations, and the general public. The task is difficult, but not impossible.
What advice would you give to the citizens of Macedonia regarding the protection of their rights on the Internet?
The digital transformation of our society is ongoing and will continue, digital technologies are already affecting all of us, and we all use them in one way or another, whether for work, learning, playing, having fun or socializing. Humans and computers, robots, will have to learn to live together, in a close relationship. If we want that relationship to succeed and benefit people, we need to look better and more seriously at the ethical and legal implications of artificial intelligence and digital technologies in general. That is why it is important to get involved as much as possible in shaping the digital agenda in the application of digital technologies, and especially artificial intelligence.
It is okay to be critical and even sceptical of new technologies, but my message is that we should not be afraid of them and create resistance to digitalization, on the contrary, we should use them, but at the same time be careful, be engaged, to learn how to use them safely to our advantage. At Metamorphosis we believe that every individual has the opportunity to contribute, we should not be passive and just wait for government agencies or companies to take care of our rights. As an organization, we stand for a society in which engaged and conscious citizens actively use innovative tools to exercise their civil rights and responsibilities, a society in which they are not afraid to get involved, to behave critically, to contribute and to seek responsibility.