Championing human rights for the internet – why bother? Part one: coming in from the cold

Arguments about why indeed human rights matter for our online lives, and who is responsible for taking action - the individual, the government, or the service provider? - rage over most people’s heads.

Marianne Franklin
31 January 2016


Marianne Franklin, Professor of Global Media and Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, gives her inaugural lecture on February 2, 2016 on ‘Public secrets – you, me, and the internet’. Marianne has hosted two panel debates with openDemocracy on ‘Defending human rights in the digital age’, the first with a panel that included the much-mourned Caspar Bowden, in one of his last typically incisive and energetic contributions to a crucial debate. The second panel discussion is represented here by two short clips, posing the question: If we cannot trust our own governments to protect our rights and fundamental freedoms online - should we trust corporate service providers to look after our personal data instead?

In the run-up to Marianne’s lecture, starting today and daily this week, look out for our serialisation of "Championing Human Rights for the internet - why bother?", beginning here with Part One,"Coming in from the cold". This introductory overview of the terrain launches openDemocracy's new 2016 partnership, 'Human rights and the internet' , dedicated to the memory of Caspar Bowden, indefatigable fighter for our digital rights.

We reaffirm our common desire and commitment to…build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society...premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” (Paragraph 6: Outcome Document, UN General Assembly WSIS+10 Review 2015)

A succession of statements making explicit the interconnection between human rights and the internet from official sources like the UN have been a source of some encouragement for those working this nexus behind the scenes. Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing in 2013 on governmental online snooping - deployed in the name of western democracy - has had no small part to play in this shift from margin to centre. The ensuing techno-legal and sociopolitical debates are as arcane as they are emotive, which makes them a slippery surface upon which to work, for pundit and punter alike.

The scaling-up of simmering geopolitical tensions around ownership and control of this internet, the underlying architecture for a planetary, albeit geographically-skewed media and communications order, let alone that of the future, have also come to a head in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

Presaged by Wikileaks and widespread sociopolitical mobilization (Occupy, the Arab Uprisings, Indignados), they have contributed to the politicization of this generation of “digital natives”. Not only those born in societies where broadband mobile, and fixed internet access is a given, but also those without this privilege. The rise in mobile internet use in the Global South, and in Asia underscores a longer-term generational shift towards, rather than away from an online realm of human experience and relationships. Here, too, ongoing disclosures of governmental and commercial service providers’ reach into our online private and working lives, throwing into relief how deeply the youth demographic regard the internet as their birthright.

This rise in the public profile of the human rights-internet nexus has gone hand-in-hand with a comparable leap up the ladder of media and scholarly interest in how traditional human rights issues are being played out on - and through - the internet as a global platform for bearing witness to rights abuses on the ground.

Going online, e.g. using email to conduct interviews, being active on social media, exposes web-dependent generations of bloggers/journalists, political dissidents and human rights defenders to threats of another order, and reveals perpetrators of a different, computer-mediated constitution. Online activities and networks can be tracked, content censored, but also these activities can subject users to online abuse and harassment and in some parts of the world lead to a prison sentence, physical assaults, and death. Such techniques add another dollop of pessimism onto longstanding research into the chilling effect that insidious practices of internet censorship, e.g. denial of access or website blocking, alongside globally expansive programs of mass online surveillance, have on fundamental rights and freedoms in the internet’s historical heartlands, and beyond.

Internet-based media watchdogs, e.g. Witness, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, Privacy International, Global Voices, have long been monitoring these trends. In so doing they chronicle the increasing interdependence of online surveillance and data-tracking techniques that turn ordinary internet users into putative suspects and automated marketing tools respectively.

International recognition at the UN level in recent years that online we have rights too heralds a complex techno-political terrain, one in which incumbent powers and emergent modalities of organized and underground resistance meet, collide and collude with one another.

‘Digital rights’ for all?

That there is an inherently digital dimension to the legal, ethical, and political complexities of international human rights brings legislators, software designers, and judiciaries face-to-face with an inconvenient truth of the age. If human rights law and norms are indeed applicable to the online environment then, from a civil liberties perspective, disproportionate levels of automated personal data retention, alongside the insidiousness of pre-emptive forms of online surveillance, are the thin edge of the wedge.

These practices throw into relief the tenuousness of regulatory measures that can adequately address internet-enabled violations of any of these rights by others, unwitting or otherwise.

The tension between how judiciaries and politicians reconsider their own remits in this regard and their generally acknowledged ignorance of the technicalities of internet design, access, and use is one pressure point. Conversely, technical standard-setters, engineers, software developers, and corporate strategists have to confront the ethical and legal demands that rights-based sensibilities bring to their de facto authority as technical experts and proprietors in the global business of internet-based products and services.

The difference between the respective areas of expertise and commitment that reside within these decision-making constituencies stretches out beyond the “internet freedom” versus “internet sovereignty” rhetoric of lobby-groups and opinion-makers. It affects the very terms of debate about who does, or who should control the internet in ways that shift the usual positioning of states and markets as antagonists, polar opposites in this stand-off, to where they have been along the internet’s timeline to date, co-protagonists.

What about so-called ordinary citizens, those who are also considered to be internet-users? Several high-profile court cases notwithstanding, e.g. Schrems vs. Facebook, Costeja vs. Google, for most people knowing your rights online is only one side of the coin. Being able to fight for your online rights is another. Having the know-how goes alongside the want-to and the wherewithal in this regard. Addressing this particular “disconnect” has been one of the main reasons behind various campaigns to raise awareness of human rights for the online environment on the one hand and, on the other, for internet governance processes. Yet the gulf continues to widen between those working in this space and the level of informed engagement with these issues by decision-makers in society at large.

Arguments about why indeed human rights matter for our online lives, and who is responsible for taking action - the individual, the government, or the service provider? - rage over most people’s heads.

Recent public debates, in the EU at least, have become steeped in a post-neoliberal rhetoric of “not so bad” government regulation as an antidote for “not so good” market forces. These dichotomies are then reflected in the uneven mainstream media coverage of national security versus (online) privacy imperatives.

This divergence between what people know and what they believe they can do about it is further entrenched through commercially-led acquisition decisions in the workplace, schools and universities, hospitals and local government offices. For instance, “free” cloud computing services come with a price as commercial service providers set the terms of use of essential services (from email to data-storage) in the long term. With that, they become private gatekeepers of future access to public, and personal archives of digital content (so-called big data) housed in corporate server farms around the world.

Part two tomorrow: “Ground Control to Major Tom”

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