My Summer Working with PEN Canada

An IHRP Fellow’s experience researching the intersections of freedom of expression and technology

By: Annecy Pang (2L)

This summer I spent seventeen weeks at PEN Canada, one of PEN International's 145 national centres. PEN celebrates literature, defends freedom of expression, and helps threatened writers resettle in safe countries.

For my fellowship, I researched and compiled a report on the impact of social media algorithms on freedom of expression in Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom. The report considers how governments use the law to address problems such as mis- and dis-information, hate speech, and the intimidation and harassment of journalists. It will likely be published later this year through PEN Canada, and is hopefully only the first stage of a multi-year project that will assess the benefits and harms of big digital platforms.

I was drawn to the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) fellowship because I wanted to delve into the intersection of technology and law through a flexible summer position. I was interested in protecting people’s rights in an age when powerful algorithms reduce individuals to a collection of data points. Luckily, PEN Canada and the IHRP had an ongoing project that fit my interest, so I picked up right where the 2020 IHRP clinic students left off. Due to the fellowship’s flexibility, I was also able to contribute to an op-ed with Downtown Legal Services on the painful legal limbo of three Uyghur men seeking family reunification in Canada, which was a truly eye-opening experience.

One challenge that I faced over the summer was working entirely from home. I found it hard to focus on government reports when the fridge (and all its delicious contents) were mere steps away!

Moreover, while I always planned on staying in Toronto for the fellowship, I had hoped for the opportunity to do some fact-finding work abroad. The COVID-19 pandemic threw that hope out of the window, but I nonetheless had a meaningful experience.

The summer fellowship at PEN Canada reinforced my interest in emerging technology and the intersection with the law. I had the chance to connect with scholars, activists, and organizations who work in combatting disinformation. Looking ahead, I hope to continue researching and advocating for the protection of individual rights as technology becomes ever more powerful and intrusive. I would encourage any students who are interested in the fellowship to pursue it and to reach out to potential organizations early.