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Meet Horizontal, the organisation that protects activists in our digital age

By Yair Oded

May 31, 2019

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Digital activism is on the rise, and its various facets only seem to be multiplying. But while technology and the internet facilitate the work of human rights champions across the world, it also renders them highly vulnerable to intimidation and attacks by adversarial governments and entities.

Horizontal, a U.S.-based nonprofit organisation and startup, offers a solution to this problem through trainings and software tools that grant digital security and safety for activists, journalists, and advocates campaigning for human rights and social justice. The organisation was founded by Trinh Nguyen and Raphael Mimoun, who, coming from different backgrounds, formed a seamless bond when they recognised their shared passion for human rights activism and technology.

Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who grew up in the U.S., gained extensive knowledge about technology and coding through her involvement with a pro-democracy organisation in Vietnam (which is outlawed by the local government and was labelled a terrorist organisation). As a digital security trainer, movement-builder, and campaigner, Nguyen took part in ‘rapid response’ operations for her organisation as well as for other groups in Vietnam, during which she worked to protect the online accounts and work of those who were arrested, campaigned for their release, and informed their families of their whereabouts.

Mimoun, originally from France, began his career by volunteering at a refugee education centre in Israel. He went on to obtain experience and education in peace-building and international relations, and eventually began to work in movement-building and training of human rights activists. “Over time, I started to specialise in technology, just out of the sheer need that you see when you’re working with people on the ground who are facing oppression and high levels of risk. Tech plays a more and more important role in protecting them,” Mimoun told Screen Shot.

Upon meeting in a regional activist-training workshop in South East Asia, Mimoun and Nguyen decided to combine forces as they embarked on a new chapter of their careers, and eventually established Horizontal.

The organisation currently has two core functions. The first is helping grassroots organisations and individuals become more digitally resilient through training and education. “That means providing digital security training specifically, but also showing them how to assess risks and help them think about organisational security when they’re campaigning—where does technology fit in, what risk factors do you have using technology, and so on,” says Nguyen.

Horizontal’s second main area of focus is creating tools and technology, the first of which is Tella, that serves as a documentation tool for journalists and activists trying to document abuse in their communities using video, photography, or audio. “So a journalist who’s travelling to interview someone, for example, could use our app to encrypt that interview and hide it on his device,” says Mimoun. The app itself, just like the content compiled in it, can be disguised as an ‘innocuous’ app, such as a calculator, so as not to arouse the suspicion of militia members, police officers, or border agents checking one’s phone. “It’s about protecting the user from external threats as they are doing their work. You can document, encrypt, hide, and share the content,” Mimoun explains.

Digital security awareness appears to be particularly relevant in countries and communities where activism is carried out primarily online. Such is the case in Vietnam, for instance, where freedom of assembly and the press is nonexistent, and so Facebook is being used as the main method of organising and mobilising, explains Nguyen. “People’s first interaction with the internet is Facebook—and there’s a low level of digital literacy and hygiene involved,” says Nguyen. “By using Facebook, people also expose themselves and their tactics to the government. In Vietnam, the government now has what they call a specific army, a cyber-army, largely to bring down Facebook accounts and launch cyber attacks, and activists are at a disadvantage, and so we want to help them use the internet in a way that’s safe and secure.”

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Horizontal, however, are the ideology and principles that inspire its founders in their work. “We are here to help communities who are at risk; that doesn’t mean telling them what to do or how to behave, but really listen attentively to what it is they need and want, and work with them to identify solutions,” says Mimoun, “If the objective is to build a world that is less hierarchical and more egalitarian, more horizontal, our organisation is trying to implement that on every level.”

Both Nguyen and Mimoun believe that meaningful change stems from grassroots initiatives, and so they gravitate towards smaller movements promoting democracy and human rights that aren’t necessarily on the radar. They have to date worked with a diverse range of communities, including in places like Cambodia and Brazil, where indigenous people are fighting against deforestation and the encroachment of their land by big corporations. “Our work is broad,” explains Mimoun, “but the common thread is supporting communities who are at risk fighting for self-determination or control of their own land and lives, or promoting change in their countries, and are being targeted for that.”

While institutional encroachment on human rights increases globally and internet freedom and security are being repeatedly threatened, initiatives such as Nguyen and Mimoun’s reassure us that there is hope for robust activism in our highly-digital horizon.