Championing human rights on the internet — Part Six: Summing up, too much or not enough?

The hard work is only just beginning, that is the drip, drip, drip of legal, political and intellectual labour to ensure that future generations on this planet get the media and communications they deserve.

Marianne Franklin
5 February 2016



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“ Deeply concerned at the negative impact that surveillance and/or interception of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of communications, as well as the collection of personal data, in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights, Reaffirming that States must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism are in compliance with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law… Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, including the right to privacy... (The General Assembly) Calls upon all States…To respect and protect the right to privacy, including in the context of digital communication…”

The passage above is from the 2013 UN Resolution 68/167 on the right to privacy in a digital age, another landmark in how UN agencies are looking to frame this debate. It goes further than preceding undertakings in its resolve, and detail, so underscoring just how far official recognition of human rights for the internet has come over the last decade. But there is still a long way to go if these high-level undertakings are able to meet the challenges raised. The ways in which people use the internet already outstrip the legal conventions and horizons of possibility that constitute national and international institutional politics.

In this sense it also confirms how explicit human rights narratives for the internet, in those spaces where norms are articulated, laws are made and eventually enforced, have only just got off the ground. It is long road ahead and it was a long time getting to this particular fork in that road. This is one reason to be cheerful. Nonetheless, the impatience of activists, jurists, and commentators about the relative lack of substance let alone insufficiencies in affordable forms of legal redress and historical deficiencies in enforcement mechanisms within the UN’s human rights monitoring institutions is one I share.

Three points to sum up. First, what is needed from an advocacy and engaged intellectual perspective is a strengthening not a weakening of resolve and analysis respectively. Hence I would take issue with the claim by some commentators that “human rights aren’t enough any more”. Notwithstanding a significant critical literature of how human rights in practice can be more problem than cure, claiming that they do not go far enough misses the historical conjuncture at which we find ourselves.

It is moreover a short distance between this notion and its counterpart, that human rights frameworks for the internet are “too much”, neither the “real thing” nor up to scratch from a particular ethnocentric experience. In both respects these rhetorical dismissals overlook, if not wilfully misread the nuances of contemporary human rights language. In so doing they also dismiss the tragic historical record of past generations whose suffering generated these principles in the first place.

Second, this brings up the need to keep engaging in what are increasingly polarized debates. One does so in order to keep accompanying terms of reference, legislative measures, and jurisprudence that would evoke human rights under critical scrutiny. Not all rule of law is good. Nor are all judgments in human rights tribunals beyond reproach; so-called “right to be forgotten” rulings for instance. These treaties and covenants are themselves historical, and sociocultural artefacts. As such they are contested outcomes, as are the precedents set by successive judicial rulings, in national and international tribunals.

Another hazard is the trend in “internet freedom” narratives that instrumentalize rights-speak for short-term, national or commercial agendas. Along with governmental and think tank pronouncements that put jingoistic understandings of security ahead of civil liberties, they obstruct the public debates needed to consider sustainable internet futures in the longer-term. The selective approach these discourses take by putting some rights and freedoms ahead of others also dismisses the long, hazardous routes being travelled by current generations of the suffering as they struggle to get to the safety of the would-be free world.

The hard work is only just beginning, that is the drip, drip, drip of legal, political and intellectual labour to ensure that future generations on this planet get the media and communications they deserve, in full, not in part. For these reasons alone both old hands and new arrivals to human rights advocacy for the internet cannot afford to get bogged down in positions of power, status, and privilege. Paul Klee’s much-cited angel of history has taken on cyberspatial dimensions.

Human rights and the internet

We are launching a new forum for these debates that have only started to come into the public eye since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on mass online surveillance practices in 2013.

Civil liberties watchdogs and international human rights organizations have voiced their growing concern about the threats that both online snooping and commercial uses of personal data pose for our fundamental rights and freedoms. Things we take for granted such as freedom of expression, freedom of information, the right to education, and the right to privacy are being eroded and undermined by how governments and internet businesses track, mine, and retain our digital footprints. Yet ordinary citizens, in the UK and around the world, are being told that these policies are “for our own good”, are only for “market research”.

To address these concerns, our forum on openDemocracy will offer a range of perspectives along three broad axes; controversies, actors, and institutions. It brings together a range of views from legal experts, h/activists, scholars, computer and security experts, intergovernmental policymakers, political and business representatives.

We will provide a space for deepening ongoing debates, discussing new issues, raising awareness and exchanging information about the institutional spaces in which internet policy decisions take place:

- look to inform and engage with openDemocracy readers about the political, economic, and social dimensions to the protection and enjoyment of our human rights online.'

- consider ongoing and new controversies such as whether internet access is a right, how the rulings of international human rights courts addressing the online environment (e.g. on the ‘right to be forgotten’) affect national legislatures, or whether the internet has meant the end to national sovereignty.

- introduce readers to the maze of institutions and spaces that make up the 'global internet governance' spaces, and to the roles that key individuals (e.g. plaintiffs in high-profile court battles) and organizational actors like the UN, the OECD, the EU, or the Council of Europe play in setting the agenda.

- tackle the question of who should, at the end of the day, govern the internet as a whole or in part. Should it be elected governments, businesses, ordinary citizens, or experts? Or should these decisions and agendas be set by everyone? If so, how and by whose rules?

- also unpack how so-called ‘multistakeholder internet governance’, decisions and processes, affect civil liberties offline in light of the emerging power struggles between nation-states, global corporations, and ordinary citizens over ownership and control of internet media and communications in the future.

Participants in Human rights and the internet will draw on the discussions held in two public panel debates at Goldsmiths (University of London) in February and December of 2015. In concluding Championing human rights for the internet – why bother? by forum editor, M.I. Franklin, we would like to extend an invitation to readers to take part in these conversations. We look forward to a lively debate and exchange of ideas and knowledge about topics that concern us all in an increasingly internet-dependent world.

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