Indian students gather for a protest against Facebook’s "Free Basics" in Hyderabad, India, Tuesday, December, 2015. Mahesh Kumar A/Press Association. All rights reserved.The mother of all controversies about the Internet is about its global governance; neatly polarized between those who believe that it is time to herald a new international institutional response adequate to our collective predicament as 'things of the Internet', and status quoists who believe that the Internet-mediated world order is serving us well, and any change will portend ominous consequences for the Internet's future.
Status quoists have good reason to stall change. The breakneck and almost sinister speed at which global digital capitalism has risen together with its intimate US foreign policy connection reveal the force majeure that the Internet is. For the US state and US Internet corporations – Google, Facebook, Twitter – protecting the US government's unilateral control over Internet governance is thus critical. The US state has repeatedly deployed the political discourse of Internet freedom to assert an a priori legitimacy to be the primary manager of the extraterritorial Internet. This has also meant tactics to undermine emerging economic powers that challenge its dominance, discrediting them for a poor human rights record.
The crisis of 'platform society'
An enabler of rights, the Internet is seen as foundational to the achievement of other rights. Some governments have begun to guarantee, in varying degrees, access to the Internet itself as a right. It is clear, even though the marginalized in most developing countries still do not have access to connectivity or are not connected in quite the same way as the privileged to the gains of the Internet, that full participation in society is a function of Internet enfranchisement.
Meanwhile, state surveillance on the one hand and corporate tracking on the other, are constructing an all-pervasive datafied society. Reaffirming the human right to privacy, the UNGA 's Second Committee, which deals with economic and social issues, noted in 2014, that unlawful or arbitrary surveillance as well as the collection of personal data are highly intrusive acts, violating rights to privacy and antithetical to the tenets of a democratic society.
While critiques of the informational state and its excesses are easily grasped, the magnitude of corporate surveillance is hardly recognized. Partly, this is owing to the fact that each of us has almost voluntarily relinquished information about our private lives in return for free access to the goodies of the 'platform society' – from social media to search, news feed and more. But, Internet platforms wield far-reaching power. This is the power to discipline social behaviour – nudging our likes, aggrandizing control to frame the rules of social interaction, and to dictate and adjudicate morality.
Google not only manipulates algorithms for its own commercial gain. It also sits on judgment about violations of intellectual property rights. FaceBook is not just personalizing newsfeeds, but randomly deleting pages on 'grounds' of decency and more. Uber not only exploits customers and drivers, but runs massive political campaigns holding city regulators to ransom, seeking complete immunity from law. Alibaba is not just in the business of e-commerce, it has declared a new business-led initiative for framing global e-commerce rules, the World e-Trade Platform (WeTP).
These developments signal a momentous challenge for “the global and open nature of the Internet” and its potential to be “a driving force in accelerating progress towards development”, underlined by the UNHRC, in 2012. It exhorts us to embark on an urgent recasting of the Internet and human rights debate, through the lens of the right to development.
An Internet that serves development
Thirty years ago, the Declaration on the Right to Development (DRD) broke new ground in the universal struggle for greater human dignity, freedom, equality and justice. It appealed to the urgent need to empower all people, so that they can participate fully and freely in vital decisions. It demanded equitable distribution of economic resources; highlighting the marginalization of women, minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, older persons, persons with disabilities and the poor.
The DRD redefines development as far deeper and more complex than a growth and for-profit focus, recognizing the limits of the current international economic framework in realizing the participatory parity of all people and all countries.
The DRD however has been a contentious instrument. Rich countries have systematically dismissed any obligation for international co-operation (inscribed in Article 6 of the DRD), using the red herring of a rights-based, individual-focused development model, where provisioning of needs is seen as the responsibility of country governments. Resolutions in the Human Rights Council, promoting “a democratic and equitable international order” are seen as inadmissible by the rich countries. The US state has repeatedly asserted that the right to development should be the obligations states owe to their citizens and not the obligations of multilateral institutions, stalling consensus on the possibility of negotiating a binding international agreement on this topic.
The DRD's call for states to “take steps, individually and collectively, to formulate international development policies with a view to facilitating the full realization of the right to development” encapsulates the directions that must be taken if the DRD's conception of "active, free and meaningful participation" can be realized at national and international levels. US posturing, and its anti-institutional stances on global democracy are a key impediment in pushing the envelope for discussions on global justice. The global governance of the Internet seems to be the latest addition to this extreme and self-serving intransigence.
As the Internet reconstitutes society, the ideas of self-determination and equality of opportunity, enshrined in the DRD, become deeply tied to the Internet. To tackle national level obstacles to the “complete fulfillment of human beings and of peoples, constituted, inter alia, by the denial of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights....", access to the Internet may thus be argued as non-negotiable. Conversely, in a world where morality, ethics and justice must be urgently reclaimed from runaway digital capitalism and reinstated within the idea of a global democracy, we need to turn to the DRD.
In 1990, the Global Consultation on the Right to Development as a Human Right observed that above all, "the concentration of economic and political power in the most industrialized countries" is an obstacle to development and is "perpetuated by the non-democratic decision-making processes of international economic, financial and trade institutions." Today, economic and political power is highly concentrated in one country, the US, as never before. Digital capitalism is pivotal to this dominance. The corollary is that legitimate global governance of the Internet must be thwarted. The default governance regime of the Internet has therefore used powerful discursive devices – mainly, the smokescreen of multistakeholder participation (to legitimize the social power of the corporation) and the subterfuge of failed multilateralism (to delegitimize people's aspirations towards a more just global order) – to perpetuate a unilateral, undemocratic, global Internet arrangement.
The Global Consultation had also proposed a decentralized, participatory process for the design of indicators and review of programmes. The emphasis would be on direct involvement, in UN programe evaluation, of "the people and groups directly or indirectly affected through their own representative organizations," including "indigenous peoples, workers' organizations, women's groups," peasants and other so-called "grassroots" organizations, without regard to their accreditation by the UN Economic and Social Council.
This treats the right to development and its core emphasis on people's right to participation, as a programmatic norm of international law, akin to the principle of self-determination. Participants in the Global Consultation believed, that such a bottom-up, people's participation was non-negotiable to build political pressure on international economic institutions. In their avowal of multistakeholderism and an equal footing for business in global decision-making, the slippery purveyors of Internet freedom seem to blissfully disregard this foundational concern about the balance of power. Participatory democracy has been hijacked by business-led multistakeholderism, and 'presence and power' are replaced as tokens of people's political involvement.
The undemocratic nature of global Internet governance is bound to spiral into a multi-dimensional civilizational crisis. The Internet redefines the experience of and claims to human rights – not only to the rights to freedom of expression, association, privacy, security, information and knowledge, but also rights to education, health and livelihood. While it can potentially expand these, the reality is that it has served as an instrument of authoritarian excesses and neoliberal capital.
Without international norms and a treaty on the Internet, it is unclear how the rights to enjoy Internet access, claim its open and public interest spaces and protect self-determination against data tyranny will materialize in a seamless, post-national Internet-mediated world. Meanwhile, the cyborgism of the present is already generating debates on the human condition – the alienation of the dispossessed and marginal communities in the current economic order and the rights of those who choose not to have Internet access.
The current human rights quandary is therefore not only about asserting a liberal, I-shall-have-my-Internet ideal; it is also very much the subaltern, republican, a-better-world-is-possible dream.