From a UN report on the right to freedom of expression and the Internet:
“In recent months, we have seen a growing movement of people around the world who are advocating for change – for justice, equality, accountability of the powerful and respect for human rights. The Internet has often played key a role in such movements by enabling people to connect and exchange information instantly and by creating a sense of solidarity,” said UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, when presenting his annual report to the UN General Assembly.
The Internet has become a vital communications tool which individuals can use to exercise their right to freedom of expression and exchange information and ideas. Still, La Rue noted that in some countries where Internet access is widely available, online content may be heavily restricted. In other countries, where online content is not restricted, the Internet may not be accessible to the majority of the population.
The Special Rapporteur reminded States that, as a general rule, they must ensure that everyone enjoys his or her right to freedom of opinion and expression by maintaining free flow of information on the Internet, and ensuring that the Internet is available, accessible and affordable to all. However, La Rue recognized that freedom of expression can be restricted in very exceptional cases in line with international human rights instruments.
“Any restriction must be established by law and be in accordance with international standards; must pursue legitimate grounds for restriction as set out in article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and be proven to be necessary and proportionate,” stressed La Rue. “Expression such as child pornography, incitement to genocide, advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence and incitement to terrorism are all prohibited under international law.”
The Rapporteur advised that decisions to regulate content, such as blocking web sites, must be taken by a competent judicial authority independent of political, commercial or other unwarranted influences. He also recommended that all other types of expression which do not fall under the four exceptional cases delineated above be decriminalized to fully guarantee the right to freedom of expression.
“Governments are using increasingly sophisticated technologies and tactics which are often hidden from the public to censor online content and monitor and identify individuals who disseminate critical or sensitive information, which frequently lead to arbitrary arrests and detention,” La Rue said.
To reduce the digital divide between populations and allow indigenous peoples and linguistic minorities to participate in a truly global society, the UN expert recommended that websites be translated into multiple languages. Moreover, Internet literacy skills should also be included in school curricula and taught to all children at an early age.
“Three-quarters of the world’s population lacks access to the Internet,” La Rue noted. “Although Internet access is not yet recognized as a right in international human rights law, States have a positive obligation to create an enabling environment so that all individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression. This includes putting in place a concrete and effective policy and the political will to ensure universal access to the Internet”.”
More on Frank La Rue’s work as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on the Internet is available here.
Excerpts from TechCrunch guest post by Richard Fontaine, a Senior Advisor at the Center for a New American Security and the co-author (with Will Rogers) of Internet Freedom: A Foreign Policy Imperative in the Digital Age:
“As an ever greater proportion of human activity is mediated through Internet-based technologies, the extent of our online rights — and what we really mean by “Internet freedom” — will take on greater importance in political and economic life. After a year in which new communications tools were used to dramatic effect throughout the Middle East, and at a time when autocratic governments are cracking down against online freedom, it is worth pausing to get straight the concept so many hold dear.
We might start by distinguishing between two linked but distinct concepts: freedom of the Internet and freedom via the Internet. Freedom of the Internet refers to the ability to engage in unfettered expression in cyberspace. This vision of Internet freedom, as scholar Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, represents freedom from something: censorship, government surveillance, DDoS attacks, and so on. The principles undergirding freedom of the Internet are articulated in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which describes as inalienable the right to receive and impart information without interference, “throughout any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In this sense, Internet freedom is little different from the notion of free expression, whose advocacy has been an element of U.S. foreign policy for decades. After all, American ambassadors have long pressed foreign governments to allow a free press, release jailed journalists and cease jamming unwanted broadcasts.
Freedom via the Internet is at once both a more alluring and complicated idea. Its advocates suggest that more online freedom can lead to more offline freedom; that is, the free flow of ideas over the Internet promotes democratization. Anyone who witnessed the Arab Spring cannot fail to be moved by the use of new communications tools by protestors to foment political change – nor by the desperate attempts by Mubarak’s Egypt, Qaddafi’s Libya, and others to stop them from doing so.
Then there is Internet access itself. While taking away the ability of individuals to engage in legitimate online expression seems clearly to represent a human rights violation, it is difficult to view governments that fail to provide broadband for their populations as human rights violators.
It is important that those who care about Internet freedom achieve a measure of conceptual clarity, because those who would abridge it are using definitions for their own ends.”
“None of this will be easy. Even some of America’s closest democratic friends have views of Internet freedom that are more restrictive than those widely held in the United States. Witness recent attempts by the government of India to have key Internet companies remove objectionable content or restrictions in Europe on online speech that insults population groups. But the effort begins with getting straight precisely what we mean by “Internet freedom.” The idea – and the reality – is too important to muddle.”
Read Richard Fontaine and Will Rogers’ report Internet Freedom: A Foreign Policy Imperative in the Digital Age here.
“People are using technology as a battering ram against the walls of fear and isolation that dictatorships erect to keep their populations quiescent. In country after country where governments have controlled nearly every aspect of life, people are demanding openness and accountability, as well as jobs and opportunity, using old ways and new ways to make themselves heard. They’ve done it online, and by risking life and limb on the streets; they’ve done it in song and text message, and in videos smuggled across borders when the Internet is turned off.
It turns out that two billion networked users are nearly impossible to silence.
In my world, the world of human rights, this new capacity for instant communication and participation has created an unprecedented dynamic. Let me give you an example. Last week in Syria, Arab League Human Rights monitors complained — unofficially — that they were not being permitted to view protests or interview demonstrators or travel freely to observe events. Yet that same day, anyone with an Internet connection could watch horrific footage on YouTube of wounded protestors in Syria who appeared to be dying on camera.
Syria is not having a Facebook revolution or a Twitter revolt or a YouTube winter. Syria is having a mass outbreak of courage. Tens of thousands of demonstrators know they risk arrest, torture and death if they take to the streets. But they’re doing it anyway. Day after day. Their courage does not emanate from any digital device. It comes from knowing that they are not alone.
So yes, the Internet is empowering. Yet we agree with Vincent Cerf, who wrote in an op-ed piece last month that Internet access is not itself a human right. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are human rights. Technology can enable those rights. Technology is not a substitute for political organizing or advocacy or persuasion. The Internet does not bring people into the street. Grievances do. The Internet did not spark the Arab Spring. Injustice did. It’s worth noting that the Arab Spring did not start because of Twitter. It started because of the heartbreaking decision by one vegetable vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, to set himself ablaze.
Connective technologies are powerful tools for strengthening and amplifying the bonds between people and organizations — for good and for ill. Last year, they enabled terrorists to recruit, and they enabled global cooperation to solve a myriad of human problems by transcending time zones, borders and even language barriers. The same connective technologies that enabled teenage bullies to orchestrate the persecution of their victims also enabled Russian activists to monitor parliamentary elections and then organize huge street demonstrations protesting the unfairness of those elections.
But let me be clear about U.S. policy: We don’t promote Internet freedom or connective technologies as a means of promoting “regime change.” We promote the freedoms of expression, association and assembly online and offline because these universal freedoms are the birthright of every individual. Human rights and human dignity are not bestowed upon people by groups or governments, and no government should feel empowered to deny them. It is up to every individual — and therefore the people of every country — to decide how to exercise them.
Let me state for the record that international law applies to online behavior. Full stop. We do not need to reinvent international human rights law, or our enduring principles, to account for the Internet. No deed is more evil — or more noble — when it is committed online rather than offline. You can’t sell child pornography in Farragut Square or Tahrir Square, and you can’t sell it on the Internet, either. You can’t break into a theater and steal the movie reels and you can’t steal movies online, either. You can’t beat up and gag a peaceful protestor and you can’t jail her for a blog post criticizing a government policy, either.
Now, I said earlier that we agree that no one has a human right to any particular technology. But at the same time, we believe that creators and purveyors of technologies have a responsibility to respect human rights through their products and their practices. Moreover, the responsibility of corporations to respect human rights extends far beyond the creators of a given technology. It is the responsibility of every company.”
“A curious op ed appeared in The New York Times recently, titled “Internet Access is Not a Human Right.” In this piece—which I read as I do most news and media, via my computer—Vinton Cerf, a “father” of the Internet, makes an argument that despite the critical role of Information Communication Technologies (the internet) in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, access to the Internet is not a human right.
I should note that his right to express himself so is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to… seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The curious bit of his piece though, isn’t the claim that Internet Access is not a human right, but rather the exceptionally narrow portrayal of human rights from a legal and philosophical perspective.
Here’s how human rights work: We have an established body of international law that represents the aspirations of humanity for each human being in realizing their inherent dignity and autonomy. States are obligated under this body of law to enact domestic laws or policies to realize those rights. Simple stuff.
But people, societies, and cultures change. Regimes and systems of governance change. And faster than anything else, technologies change and science produces ever greater knowledge of truth. And that means that policies and interpretation of what human rights guarantee must also change.
As a relevant aside,
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. (Article 27 of the UDHR).
In just over a decade, communication technologies have become indispensable to the world’s most marginalized people. Indeed, loss of access would be a mere annoyance to me. In places from Sub-Saharan Africa to the most impoverished communities here in the US, however, loss of access could mean an immediate threat to lives and livelihoods. No, not for me or Mr. Cerf.
And the increasing necessity of internet access for the world’s most impoverished as it relates to health, education, employment, the arts, gender equality—all things we have the right to enjoy means that Information Technologies (yes, the Internet) are inseparable from the rights themselves.
What is the Internet? It is an endless network of people, information, and knowledge. And resting on the architecture of the Internet is a digital public space found in social and professional networking that rivals the richness of any physical town square. And—using Cerf’s logic—while access to the physical town square may not be a human right in isolation, it has always been for most inseparable from the right to association and expression. And denial of access to the town square through curfews, martial law, or emergency rules are tantamount to restriction on association and expression.
The rights enshrined in the UDHR are to be enjoyed by all people, in all places, and at all times. Technological progress will always change how people enjoy their fundamental rights, and require governments and people to reaffirm the inseparability rights, and the methods of enjoyment of those rights.
In a recent UN report—published at the height of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa— Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue acknowledges the pivotal role the internet plays for the exercise of human rights:
The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.
I get asked by students more than occasionally: Given that the UDHR and the core human rights covenants prohibit discrimination based on gender or on race, why do we also have CEDAW? Or CERD? (Separate treaties relating to discrimination against women and racial discrimination).
The simplified answer is: We have them because the original guarantees as elaborated weren’t enough. We have them because our evolving understanding of the rights enshrined in the UDHR required new instruments to guarantee those rights. We have them because someone, somewhere, refused to make the necessary changes to policy or practice to guarantee some segment of the human family the rights they were already guaranteed in the UDHR.
Because someone, somewhere said “that’s not a human right.”
Follow Scott Edwards on Twitter @sxedwards”
A NYT op-ed from Vinton Cerf:
“FROM the streets of Tunis to Tahrir Square and beyond, protests around the world last year were built on the Internet and the many devices that interact with it. Though the demonstrations thrived because thousands of people turned out to participate, they could never have happened as they did without the ability that the Internet offers to communicate, organize and publicize everywhere, instantaneously.
It is no surprise, then, that the protests have raised questions about whether Internet access is or should be a civil or human right. The issue is particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped down on Internet access in an attempt to quell the protesters. In June, citing the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur went so far as to declare that the Internet had “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” Over the past few years, courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have pronounced Internet access a human right.
But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.
The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time. Indeed, even the United Nations report, which was widely hailed as declaring Internet access a human right, acknowledged that the Internet was valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.
What about the claim that Internet access is or should be a civil right? The same reasoning above can be applied here — Internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important — though the argument that it is a civil right is, I concede, a stronger one than that it is a human right. Civil rights, after all, are different from human rights because they are conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings.
While the United States has never decreed that everyone has a “right” to a telephone, we have come close to this with the notion of “universal service” — the idea that telephone service (and electricity, and now broadband Internet) must be available even in the most remote regions of the country. When we accept this idea, we are edging into the idea of Internet access as a civil right, because ensuring access is a policy made by the government.
Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights. The Internet has introduced an enormously accessible and egalitarian platform for creating, sharing and obtaining information on a global scale. As a result, we have new ways to allow people to exercise their human and civil rights.
In this context, engineers have not only a tremendous obligation to empower users, but also an obligation to ensure the safety of users online. That means, for example, protecting users from specific harms like viruses and worms that silently invade their computers. Technologists should work toward this end.
It is engineers — and our professional associations and standards-setting bodies like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — that create and maintain these new capabilities. As we seek to advance the state of the art in technology and its use in society, we must be conscious of our civil responsibilities in addition to our engineering expertise.
Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right.”
Vinton G. Cerf, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is a vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google