Championing human rights on the internet – Part five: Why bother then?

What have yet to get going are more informed discussions in local (schools, universities, hospitals, town halls) and national (parliaments and businesses) settings.

Marianne Franklin
4 February 2016


Marianne Franklin, Professor of Global Media and Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, gave 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?

Daily this week look out for our serialisation of "Championing Human Rights for the internet - why bother?", continuing here with Part Five,"Why bother then?" 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.


Shami Chakrabarti, 2007. Clara Molden/PA Images. All rights reserved.So why indeed bother if appeals to existing human rights standards are so contentious, bound by national experiences and interests? Why not use other terms, e.g. digital rights, internet rights, digital liberties, if the term human rights remains too politically loaded, past its use-by date given the contentious legal and linguistic legacy of these institutions?

Because we must is one short answer. Human rights have always been political. For this reason struggles around their provenance, legal enforcement, and ethical coherence are integral to any decision-making about the future of internet design, access, and use.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties charity, Liberty, recently put her finger on this point. In doing so she signals the outlook for democratic societies in a so-called post-Snowden context, if public authorities and private internet service providers continue to pass the buck on who is responsible for overseeing the interrelationship between human rights norms offline and online;

“Words, first spoken, then delivered by script, print and now digital media, remain the principal means by which humans may contemplate, negotiate, mediate, adjudicate and agitate for a different world without constant need of violence. And human rights are the only truly universal language other than war.”

Chakrabarti also points to a longer answer to the ‘why bother?’ challenge. Namely that cynicism and lack of interest are the privilege of those who believe they have “nothing to hide”, nothing to lose. Taking human rights protections forgranted is for those who believe their worldview, liberal democratic way of life is beyond the need for the obligations that these norms lend to all of us, in principle at least.

As formative, and necessary as they are, engaging in critical debates in academe about the philosophical and legal vagaries of human rights norms are of a different order than the urgency of the advocacy work I am addressing here. All the more reason then for dedicated, interdisciplinary and comparative research into how the full spectrum of human rights norms relate to the future internet, for these struggles implicate future visions for society.

The need to move into those areas that are still less considered, their initial iterations for the online environment still under-articulated, is based on a longer-term historical view. For instance, the current trend towards the reduction and parsing out of certain rights (freedom of expression or privacy) ahead of others is one obstacle on this journey, because this privileging of earlier, first generation treaties and covenants is the default position of incumbent powers. Those legal standards that follow – for persons with disabilities, of the rights of children for instance - and those that bespeak the whole panoply of international human rights norms such as gender and women’s rights, let alone those pertaining to where the internet and the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals intersect, are all points at which scholars, and activists need to keep up the pressure.

Indeed, it is time to become more vociferous, more daring in staking this claim that the internet concerns all, not just some rights, even if the legal substance of emerging rights such as internet access are a moot point. It is all too convenient to concede that international human rights law, enshrined in twentieth century experience, is easily contravened by those agencies designated to oversee such law. It is also an historical fact that the universality of human rights enshrined in the UDHR in particular is relative in practice. Different societies, their changing political regimes, and judiciaries interpret and institutionalize these legal norms in ways that are both internally contradictory or challenge the explicit universality of these norms. It is also a given that judiciaries and legislatures are still catching up with how people – companies and state authorities – use internet media and communications have already made a difference to the ability of existing or pending laws to respond appropriately, and in good time.

But one other main reason why we should bother is that these frameworks provide a constructive and sustainable way to critically examine existing democratic models and institutions at the online-offline nexus.

This applies to laypersons, political representatives and business leaders. It also applies to highly skilled employees of the military-industrial establishment from which programs such as Echelon, PRISM, and international collaborations such as Five Eyes, have been developed. And it applies to educators, managers, emerging and established scholarly and activist communities with a stake in the outcome of this historical conjuncture. This is a time in which powerful forces have at their disposal the computer-enhanced means to circumvent existing rights and freedoms, and do so on a scale that begs discomforting comparisons with twentieth century war machines of totalitarianism.

For those experts who have realised that hi-tech engineering based on automated systems are also embedded in competing values and objectives, the terms of the debate shift and with that their contribution to power struggles around the internet-human rights nexus.

If, as Bill Binney former technical director of the NSA turned Whistleblower of the first hour, the “issue is the selection of data, not the collection of data then these engineering decisions are sociopolitical issues from the outset. Putting humans back into the techno-power matrix of thought that has underpinned “Information Society” tropes, by addressing the human rights-internet interconnection, is one way to confront the trend towards a legitimation of anti-democratic polities in the name of post-Westphalian visions for the future.

Two steps forward, six steps back

The first iteration of the UN Resolution on the Internet and Human Rights in 2012 was a fillip to human rights advocacy for the internet in the years leading up to Snowden. Its eventual endorsement in 2014 intact underscored results already achieved.

That said, it has possibly already outlived its use-by date given the thinness of the wording, despite the reiteration of these sentiments in the aforementioned UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Outcome Document of the WSIS+10 meeting in 2015, cited above. The quote below, from a speech by Parminder Jeet Singh to the UN General Assembly in this same meeting, underscores the relative measure of success in this regard:

“People, directly or through their representatives, alone can make public policy and law. Neither business nor technical experts can claim special, exalted roles in public policy decisions. Such a trend, as parts of civil society have noted with concern, is an unfortunate anti-democratic development in Internet governance today.”

Singh’s stance is from the Global South, a view from a staunch defender of representative democracy and trenchant critic of US corporate ownership and control of the internet’s architecture and social media platforms. It is a position under fire as the extent to which the public-private partnerships that developed and funded the online surveillance and data-retention practices brought to light in recent years point the finger at democratically elected governments.

Nonetheless, for those member-states with less geographical and techno-economic clout than those ruling over the UN Security Council, and General Assembly, the 2012 UN Resolution (A/HRC/20/L.13) and those declarations that ensued are landmarks in resisting techno-economic hegemony at the global rather than national level.

This is the point that Singh is making even if his statement holds in high regard a still fragile recognition from government signatories of their historical and legal obligations under laws of their own making. The hopefulness in this pronouncement pits international rights-based framings of internet design, access, and use against the increasing tendency for governments around the world to retreat into national security narratives, dust off laissez-faire approaches to the business of internet policy-making that, at the end of the day, contradict these obligations.

The differences between how public and private actors work with successive generations of human rights norms within and between national jurisdictions underscore these complexities. Take for instance arguments around the legal status of privacy or freedom of speech in different jurisdictions (e.g. between the US and EU) and their respective political economic implications.

Another case is the way in which competing rules for data retention in the European Union, Latin America and Caribbean, or Asia-Pacific regions come up against respective statutes of limitations, different national experiences of dictatorship (e.g. South Korea, Latin America), and vast differences in infrastructure (India or Sub-Saharan Africa). Looking ahead in light of the UN’s latest Sustainable Development Goals, the environmental and social costs of “connecting the next billion” in the Global South at any price reveals internet heartlands’ dependence on the precious metals and unprotected labour of IT manufacturing and knowledge workers in these same regions.

Thinking about the current internet within a human rights framework has changed the terms of debate, at least in high-level political domains to good effect. It has also provided inspiration for a range of community-based and national campaigns from civil society organizations. But what have yet to get going are more informed discussions in local (schools, universities, hospitals, town halls) and national (parliaments and businesses) settings. Until then debates about who, or what agency is responsible for tackling the complex practicalities of human rights-informed decisions on the future of internet design, access, use, and content management will stall in the quagmire of mutual recriminations between vested interests. This is where historically aware and thorough critical scholarship can start to unpack, not simply parrot the underlying rhetoric and political economies driving debates dominated by vested interests across the government, corporate and civil society sectors.

Implementing human rights frameworks for the internet demands a next step in the “paradigm shift” taking place at the level of public discourse as well. Only then can human rights talk for how the internet should be run gain traction for crucial decisions about ownership and control of the world’s ‘digital imaginations’.

Then the work has to start to develop robust accountability mechanisms for both oppressive governmental surveillance agendas, the excesses of commercial exploitation of our digital footprints, and other misuses of these technological capabilities. Only then can human rights frameworks in the round, plus how specific rights and freedoms apply to the fast-changing online environment at any given moment, be more than an exercise in empty rhetoric. Chakrabarti puts her finger again on the sore spot:

“To scoop up everyone's data on the off chance that at some indefinite point in the future some of us will fall under suspicion, or for the purpose of a "trawling expedition" to find potential suspects, is the twenty-first-century equivalent of planting cameras and microphones in every family home.” (Chakrabarti 2015)

These considerations are not a western indulgence, pivoting on the history of human rights as a response to the holocaust and refugee crisis in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Rather it is one that changes the political, and with that the techno-legal conversation about the sociocultural dimensions to a generation of information and communications technologies whose uses have been construed in technical terms only.

It demystifies the way they work in terms of meaning-making, community formation by social beings. It puts them back firmly in the remit of political struggle, democratic praxis, and responses to the power modalities by which both consent and dissent are being “manufactured” (to borrow from Noam Chomsky), reproduced, and re-circulated on a planetary scale.

Part six tomorrow: Summing up, too much or not enough?

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