Communication rights and autonomy in the era of data
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Communication rights and autonomy in the era of data

Pradip Ninan Thomas

The ability to Voice, Access resources and technology, the strengthening of local capabilities within an enabling environment and being able to communicate through a language of one’s choice – these remain fundamental building blocks in the creation of sustainable communication environments.

In the context of community networks in some parts of Latin America such as in Chiapas, Mexico, local indigenous communities locate and position voice and access within the larger desire for “autonomy” and development that is needs-based and designed, implemented, managed and controlled by local communities. There is a sense in which the word “autonomy” refers to a wanting to be left alone after different forms of internal and external colonialism deprived these communities of their land, resources and rights.

Both the State and the private sector have been responsible for corralling indigenous communities into environments in which life with dignity is unviable and in depriving them of access to resources that they traditionally had access to – land, water sources, forest-based and other resources. It is deplorable that the Chiapas region in Mexico supplies half of Mexico’s electricity and 30% of its water but that 90% of indigenous communities do not have access to energy, plumbing and health care.1 They then have little choice but to make lifestyle choices that are inimical to their health and livelihoods.

Indigenous communities have also been marginalised in the communication environments in which we live. The story of universal access to telecommunications reflects the ways in which large companies and monopolies have been able to skirt their commitments to universal service obligations (USOs) that are often included in licenses. There are numerous cases from around the world of telecom carriers not fulfilling these obligations ostensibly because connecting remote populations is financially unviable.

The need for Autonomy therefore needs to be seen in the context of real gaps and the failures of both the State and the private sector to invest in infrastructures and enabling environments.

In Aotearoa, this autonomy is expressed in the term tino rangatiratanga, which translates to self-determination, sovereignty, independence and autonomy. In the words of Te One and Clifford (2021)2:

“Tino rangatiratanga refers to Māori control over Māori lives, and the centrality of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). While focused on a Māori worldview, tino rangatiratanga also has a close association with the challenges that have come from the loss of Māori control through colonial practices and has been used as a framework from which Māori have continued to challenge governments for recognition of our individual and collective self-determination.”

This desire for autonomy has been expressed through both legal and cultural means. In the context of Chiapas, the Zapatistas were involved in enabling local autonomies that took the form of self-governance and consensus-based decision-making that enabled the broad participation of local people in their own affairs. While the history of that struggle has been well documented and is in some ways unique, most indigenous communities around the world are not fortunate enough to be heirs to such frameworks of resistance and practices of democracy. It is difficult for them to practice any form of autonomy as they are often part of State structures that only offer centralised development with little option for any form of autonomy.

In countries such as India where there is a marked reluctance to recognise that “tribal” groups are indeed First Nations, any expression of autonomy has been met with State violence – the most egregious example of such violence being the widespread attempt to manage and make pliable communities who are deemed to be sympathetic to armed insurgents fighting for autonomy who are often described as Maoists.

Decentralised forms of development and technologies of access

Such autonomies need to be seen in the context of the global desire for decentralised forms of development and technologies of access such as wi-fi and mesh that can be deployed to create networks and connectivities that count. However, the availability of such technologies is just one of the building blocks of communication rights in our data driven world. While autonomy and self-determination describe the basis for personal and collective well-being that is based on local decision making, these terms also need to be used to make sense of critical needs related to communication rights.

Maori communities who have fought for their language, cultural rights, and traditional knowledge now acknowledge that both data sovereignty and data governance are essential aspects of their struggle for self-determination and autonomy. As the report Te Kahui Raraunga: Maori Data Governance Model (n.d.) notes – this is both about data for self-determination and Maori authority over Maori Data in line with similar initiatives established by the Canadian First Nations Information Governance Centre.

“Māori data governance (MDGov) refers to the processes, practices, standards and policies that enable Māori, as collectives and as individuals, to have control over Māori data … [There is] a focus on self-determination and intergenerational wellbeing; recognising data as a valued cultural resource; an emphasis on collective data rights; and prioritising Indigenous values as the basis for good data governance” (4-5).3

So, I think communication rights need to be seen both in terms of enabling media/digital diversity and fair traditions of algorithmic management at a macro level along with efforts to establish data self-determination and data sovereignty at micro, community levels. This way of interpreting communication rights is markedly different from earlier traditions that focussed on curbing/regulating Big Media – media ownership along with, at best, making a case for media alternatives.

While this approach remains valid, the emphasis on autonomy and self-determination requires us to investigate the worth and validity of a much more decentralised and local understanding of communication rights where people determine communication rights challenges along with the required solutions. This inability to translate communication rights at a local level has arguably been one of the key bugbears of communication rights activists.

So, it is not just about community radio and the need for policies in support of this sector but a community radio that is deeply integrated with a community’s struggles for self-determination and autonomy. We need also to expand our understanding of Voice, Access and affordability in the context of our data driven societies and to upgrade and integrate community radio with the affordances of community networks.

Given the availability of a range of connectivity technologies and the critical importance of digital transactions in our everyday lives, there simply has to be greater emphasis on data control at local levels. This imperative needs to be seen against the reality of both political and economic surveillance, data insecurities and the rather cavalier approach taken by both governments and Big Tech to data.

For the most part, the language of communication rights and its priorities have been set by well-meaning experts and that includes academics like this author and organisations such as WACC who have made major investments in finding solutions to communication rights. While I am not in any way discounting the need for global communication rights activism and global communication rights advocacy, a decentralised approach to communication rights does enable integrated solutions in which communications, well-being and community are not treated as separate units but as threads in a tapestry that is woven locally.

I think the examples from Chiapas and that of Maori data self-determination exemplify an approach to communication rights that is focussed on local control over data that can make a difference in how people live their lives, how they want to deal with the data and metadata that they generate and how they share such data with others – be it government agencies or the private sector. These autonomies are by no means complete given the lives of such communities in extremely contentious contexts characterised by multiple claims on local land, local resources and local lifestyles.

Autonomy and self-determination are not cut from the same cloth and there are different approaches, priorities, interpretations and understandings of autonomy. What is common to all these understandings is the primacy given to collective solutions to the challenges facing these communities including that of how to engage with data, collect data, use and share data within a framework in which connectivity is based on community needs and driven by community interests.

Dinerstein (2015: 61) offers what reads like a Freirean understanding of autonomy:

“My working definition of autonomy as the art of organising hope comprises four modes of the autonomous praxis: negating, creating, contradicting and excess. In the key of hope, negating is deciphered as a rejection of the given – capitalist, patriarchal and colonial – realities… The creating mode of autonomy anticipates the future by modelling concrete utopias (i.e., invents new practices, relations, sociabilities and horizons…). The contradicting mode of autonomy is about navigating and resisting the danger of appropriation and translation of autonomy into the grammar of power and the necessity of disappointment. Finally, excess is informed by the category of the not yet (i.e., it is related to the search towards the realisation of an unrealised reality that can be invented or rendered visible by anticipating it in different contexts).”4

Dinerstein’s definition points to autonomy as a plan of action that is both practical and that is based on organising Hope.

As we engage with communication rights in the context of the digital worlds that we live in, it will do well to engage with how the concept of autonomy can illumine the theory and practice of communication rights.


1. Godelman, R. (2014), The Zapatista Movement: the fight for indigenous rights in Mexico, Australia Institute for International Affairs, July 30.

2. Te One, A. & Clifford, C. (2021), Tino Rangatiratanga and well-being: Maori self-determination in the face of Covid 19, Frontiers of Sociology, 3.

3. Te Kahui Raraunga: Maori Data Governance Model (N.D.1-45), Tahu Kukutai, Kyla Campbell-Kamariera, Aroha Mead, Kirikowhai Mikaere, Caleb Moses, Jesse Whitehead and Donna Cormack.

4. Dinerstein, A. C. (2015) The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire and NY.

Pradip Ninan Thomas is at the School of Communication & Arts, University of Queensland. His research interests include communication rights and communications for social change. Some of his writings can be downloaded free of charge from the site

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