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Championing human rights for the internet - why bother? Part three; Some progress is better than nothing?

Standard-setting bodies who have all played a part in the historical trajectory of the ‘hard’ techno-legal decision-making that comprises internet governance behind the scenes are now under public scrutiny.

Marianne Franklin
2 February 2016
HRI

Marianne Franklin, Professor of Global Media and Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, gives her inaugural lecture today, 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?

 

Daily this week look out for our serialisation of "Championing Human Rights for the internet - why bother?", continuing here with Part Three,"Some progress is better than nothing?". 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.

Old wine in new bottles.

Old wine in new bottles. Shutterstock/SvedOliver. All rights reserved.

The emergence within power-holding constituencies of voices urging the acknowledgement of some level of accountability, articulation of some formal responsibility towards these increasingly explicit obligations to uphold and protect existing human rights law and norms online has not gone uncontested.

Influential UN member-states lying outside the internet’s heartlands (e.g. Russia, India, or China) also have different views of their ‘roles and responsibilities’ in the face of civil society contenders for an equal footing. Likewise for those global corporate players objecting to state interference, with or without the tacit support of their allies in government, whose business models go to the heart of how the contemporary, increasingly privatized internet operates.

There has also been a move towards at least a nominal recognition that human rights and the internet do and, indeed, should mix within powerful agencies opposed to direct forms of government control as a point of principle; e.g. the US-incorporated Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) as it undergoes its own version of globalization. The ante has been upped thereby for governments, post-Snowden, claiming the higher moral ground by virtue of their legal responsibilities under international human rights law in the face of state-sponsored abuses of fundamental rights and freedoms.

What does this mean at the techno-economic and political level of national and international negotiations between public and private players who control internet policy agenda setting? First that representatives of those intergovernmental organizations, standard-setting bodies of expert networks who have all played a part in the historical trajectory of the ‘hard’ techno-legal decision-making that comprises internet governance behind the scenes are now under public scrutiny. Second, this scrutiny implicates commercial actors also, whose global market share also imputes to them decision-making powers normally reserved for governments, the national sovereigns of old.

I am referring here to the geographical and proprietary advantage of those US-owned corporations that own and control the lion’s share of devices, applications, and platforms that delimit what people do, and where they go once online. Their emerging competitors, counterparts in China and Russia who also exercise power over their citizens’ access and use of respective social media tools, online goods and services are not beyond reproach either.

Used to conferring behind our screens, out of the glare of the global media or political spotlight, all these powerbrokers are having a hard time arguing that their work should be treated as a separate sphere of influence, immune from ‘soft’ human rights considerations by virtue of being ‘only’ a technical, business, or national concern.

No power-holder, public or private, has been left untouched by the wave of outrage that has flowed from Snowden’s whistleblowing. No power-holder, public or private, has been left untouched by the wave of outrage that has flowed from Snowden’s whistleblowing. In this respect what has been achieved in getting human rights squarely (back) on this agenda is not negligible from a wider historical perspective, even if this means only looking back over the last decade or so. Ten years is a lifetime in computing terms.

In this period, industry and government sponsored ‘high-level’ declarations of principle (NETmundial 2014), recent UN-brokered reviews of global internet governance frameworks (UNESCO+10), and diverse intergovernmental undertakings (e.g. from the OECD to the Council of Europe) have taken off.

There has also been a mushrooming of rights-based declarations for the internet from civil society organizations and lobby groups. For instance, calls have emanated from local and international NGO networks (e.g. from the Philippines to the transnational reach of the Association of Progressive Communications), the business sector (e.g. Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his Magna Carta project), and political parties (e.g. The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand). Organizations and networks that were once quite shy of the ‘human rights’ label are now proudly brandishing their work as such.

After a slow start then, human rights campaigning for the internet is now “hot” even if for some critics, US-based for a large part, they presage the rise of excessive regulatory evils. For others, the idea of ‘new’ rights for the internet runs the danger of diluting international standards, which are indeed fragile at best. The human rights record of persistent offenders is still a focal point for campaign strategies at grassroots and agendas for beleaguered UN agencies such as the Human Rights Council.

Old wine in new bottles?

Those with an historical disposition might note that these moves look like the history of competing social justice and media advocacy agendas at the international level repeating itself.

There is some truth to this given an under-recognized genealogy of human rights-based approaches to the media/internet that go back to the earliest days of the UN (e.g. Article 19 of the UDHR in 1948), into the late twentieth century (the New World and Information Communication Order) and this one (the initial World Summit on the Information Society 2003-2005). As a consciously dissenting voice, civil society rights-based initiatives along this historical media-internet spectrum have also had their precursors (e.g. the Communication Rights for the Information Society campaign).

The most recent wave of rights-based initiatives has tacitly taken their cue from these earlier iterations. They acknowledge, more or less, several legally formative initiatives that have also been given an added fillip from the current shift in favour towards human rights-inflected discourses for the internet.

The Internet Governance Forum-based IRPC Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet (launched in 2010-11), the Brazilian Marco Civil (under way at the same time and finally passed into law in 2014), and the Council of Europe’s Guide to Human Rights for Internet Users (from the same period and endorsed in 2014) are three authoritative examples of mutually reinforcing policy frameworks drawing explicitly on international human rights standards. In so doing they address lawmakers, judiciaries, and broader publics in a modality that is distinct from, yet resonates with advocacy campaigns.

Even the harshest critics of institutionally-situated forms of rights activism, or of human rights themselves on philosophical grounds, are witnessing such undertakings that focus on internet media and communications become public record, housed online in the UN archives, used as primary documentation and reference points in emerging jurisprudence and research.

This is, I would argue, a victory in the medium-term given years of concerted indifference from prominent governments, industry leaders, and civil society organizations uneasy about seeing human rights shift ‘up’ into cyberspace in the face of unaddressed abuses on the ground. For this reason this boom in rights-based utterances can be seen as a good thing, at this stage in the road. More is, indeed, more.

By the same token, to be sustainable, human rights advocacy for the internet and, conversely, approaches that isolate specific rights as they pertain to particular design issues have their work cut out to make these techno-legally complex issues meaningful in practice.

The ways in which the economic benefits of the “real name systems” underpinning social networking business models and projected usefulness of the same for law enforcement agencies trip up fundamental freedoms such as privacy, freedom of expression, and association for vulnerable groups is one example.

That a relatively high entry-threshold of terminology and specialized knowledge confronts not only the average person, but also the average manager, or university, school, or hospital administrator is another challenge in this regard. That work has barely begun and those organizations and grassroots networks doing this kind of educational and support work at the online-offline nexus of structural disadvantage get little enough credit.

Part four tomorrow: Stepping up the tempo

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