A blog on why norms matter online

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Victory for the Internet? A Victory for Internet users!

Carl Bildt, foreign minister of Sweden, calls it a "victory for the Internet". I would go one step further: It is a victory for all Internet users - and for all those who have not yet been able to access the Internet due to the digital divide(s) in all its (their) forms. 

Now, what is that victory? 

Today, the  UN Human Rights Council has adopted a key resolution on promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet

GE.12-14710 UN Doc. A/HRC/20/L.13
Human Rights Council
Twentieth session Agenda item 3 Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development

draft resolution
20/… The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet
The Human Rights Council,
Guided by the Charter of the United Nations,
Reaffirming the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and relevant international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 
Recalling all relevant resolutions of the Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Council on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in particular Council resolution 12/16 of 2 October 2009, and also recalling General Assembly resolution 66/184 of 22 December 2011, 
Noting that the exercise of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet is an issue of increasing interest and importance as the rapid pace of technological development enables individuals all over the world to use new information and communications technologies,
Taking note of the reports of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, submitted to the Human Rights Council at its seventeenth session,1 and to the General Assembly at its sixty-sixth session,2 on freedom of expression on the Internet,
1. Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
 2. Recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms;
3. Calls upon all States to promote and facilitate access to the Internet and international cooperation aimed at the development of media and information and communications facilities in all countries;
4. Encourages special procedures to take these issues into account within their existing mandates, as applicable;
5. Decides to continue its consideration of the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet and in other technologies, as well as of how the Internet can be an important tool for development and for exercising human rights, in accordance with its programme of work.

The Resolution's approach is sound. It first underlines the basic tenet: that human rights offline also apply online. There is no need to reinvent human rights, rather they have to be refined and applied in light of new challenges.

The second paragraph is correct in that it identififes the Internet as a facilitator of progress towards development, but remains vague. What are the consequences, we may enquire, of that recognition. 

The call for states to promote and facilitate access in paragraph 3 is important for bridging the digital divide but could have been formulated more clearly. International cooperation aimed at the development of media and information and communication facilities seems to imply investment in infrastructure. This leaves out the content dimension of access. 

I feel that the Human Rights Council should have stated more clearly what the application of human rights to the the Internet applies. Namely, that states need to rethink their censorship policies and provide legitimate reasons (and ensuing proporational normative reactions) for content limitations.

Special procedures should indeed take the role of human rights on the Internet into account. Most special procedures will find that the Internet can impact their work, and be it in the collection of data on violations of the right they are charged with protecting.

Finally, the Human Rights Council decides to remain seized of the matter. This is good, because the first resolution on human rights on the Internet is a rather vague affair that would have benefitted from clear guidelines to states what the limits are to state limitations of Internet freedom. 

Centrally, what the Human Rights Council should have mentioned is the human rights-based duties of states to ensure the stability, functionality and integrity of the Internet. 

But the wide support the resolution had, with presenting countries including Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey and the United States more nuanced and direct language would have impossible to agree on.

In his comment in the IHT, Carl Bildt concludes

"The governments of the Human Rights Council now for the first time have confirmed that freedom of expression applies fully to the Internet. A global coalition for a global and open Internet has been formed.
This is truly important, but we must not stop here. The challenge now is to put these words into action to make sure that people all over the world can use and utilize the power of connectivity without having to fear for their safety. This work is far from over."
 I agree. We need to put these words into actions. But, I would argue, we also need to put some more flesh on these words. What exactly does it mean for states that human rights that apply offline also apply online? This is a discussion that we should enter into globally, and quickly. 

(For readers of German: I've led an initiative on human rights and the Internet for the Internet&Society Co:llaboratory that has concluded in the publication, in May 2012, of a report on exactly these issue. It's worth a read.) 

1 comment:

  1. Are you aware that Brazil exactly about to "put some flesh" as the Marco Civil of Internet in Brazil law proposal - sort of a civil rights based law framework - is about to be first voted in a special commission at the National Congress? As the current version establishes, net neutrality, privacy and freedom of speech would have express provision, among others measures. More on this at bit.ly/blogagem.