Human rights: Broadening the conversation

8 Dec 2016 11:00h - 14:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 11th Internet Governance Forum]

This session explored human rights and its connection to the Internet in three dimensions: the covenant on civil and political rights (CPR), the covenant on economic social and cultural rights (ESCR), and the interaction between the two. The session started with a word of welcome by Yolanda Martinez, Chief of the Digital Government Unit of Mexico and Host Country Moderator, who stressed the equal importance of both covenants of human rights, and the need for a multistakeholder model to address them. Next, moderators Paulina Gutiérrez, Programme Officer on the Right to Information, Article 19, and Anja Kovacs, Researcher, Activist, and Director, Internet Democracy, introduced the topics and format of the session.

Part I Civil and political rights

The discussants on the topic of civil and political rights were asked to reflect on the achievements, as well as emerging key issues in this area.

Ms Ana Neves, Director, Department for the Information Society, Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia in Portugal, divided the topic into three components:

  1. Empowering citizens to strengthen their CPRs
  2. Respecting privacy and personal data
  3. Addressing the interplay between content policy and freedom of expression

She furthermore related these issues to the Portuguese context.

Mr Hernán Vales, Information Officer, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, provided an overview of the milestones at the Human Rights Council over the last five years, including the growing sophistication of the Human Rights Council resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights on the Internet. As a consequence, states now know that they are being scrutinised, and they can no longer claim that there is no clear framework of human rights. Yet, he was reminded by Patrick Penninckx, Head of the Information Society Department of the Council of Europe, that adherence to rights and values is not a linear process, leaving the perception that we ‘go backward rather than forward’. In addition, ESCR instruments are often too outdated – stemming from the 19th century – to effectively address the changed context of the digital age.

Mr Luis Fernando Garcia, Executive Director, R3D, the Digital Rights Defense Network of Mexico, focused on challenges to privacy, as surveillance is becoming increasingly common. He provided several examples from Mexico, and posed the question of how to make progress on this topic.

Providing a view from the private sector, Mr Will Hudson, Senior Advisor for International Policy, Google, highlighted three issues:

  • The importance of the freedom of expression, which is not static in time, and therefore continuously needs to be addressed.
  • The importance of transparency to understand the ways in which freedom of expression is challenged.
  • The importance of a multistakeholder model to benefit from the engagement of actors from all sectors, noting that ‘Google doesn’t always know the answer’.

Ms Paz Peña, journalist and independent researcher on human rights, raised the important question of whether digital technologies will become an enabler for citizens or rather a smart tool to control subjects. To prevent the Internet from becoming a device for oppression, transparency and democratic oversight is necessary. Sharing Peña’s call for transparency, Ms Rebecca MacKinnon, Director of the Ranking Digital Rights Project at the New America Foundation, explained that existing governance systems are not built for information societies, providing companies with possibilities to exercise their power globally. Although some companies are making efforts to meet their responsibilities, more effective mechanisms are needed.

Ms Anita Gurumurthy, Executive Director of IT for Change, mentioned a number of milestones that have been achieved in relation to CPR, but explained that these achievements need to be consolidated, which would require looking beyond the dichotomy of online and offline dimensions – a statement that was later echoed by MacKinnon. She also pointed to the importance of holding power structures accountable to prevent neo-colonial tendencies in the governance of digital technologies.

After the discussants had shared their thoughts, the room was opened for questions and suggestions from participants. Key discussion topics included:

  • The role of Internet companies
    Many participants pointed to the increased power – and hence responsibility – of Internet companies, including their control over user data and the information that they publish. Garcia highlighted this dominance, as he argued that companies ‘are starting to make decisions impacting more people than governments’. MacKinnon explained that good data protection laws are necessary, as companies will otherwise ‘not bother to adhere to best practices’. According to Mr Stuart Hamilton, Director of Policy and Advocacy and Deputy Secretary-General, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, education should include digital skills training, which is needed to understand the algorithms used by companies to manipulate the information we see.
  • Government surveillance
    Vales remarked that although there is growing awareness among governments about rights and how to respect them, they have become more sophisticated in finding ways to go around them. Garcia added that governments often do not comply with the law.
  • The role of citizens
    According to Peña, users can play an important role in avoiding the use of the services from Internet platforms and companies that are monopolising user data.

II Economic, social and cultural rights

Kovacs introduced this topic, arguing that ESCRs have not been extensively seen on the agenda at IG forums, and that they have traditionally received much less prominence than CPR. Adding to this introduction, Mr Juan Fernandez, Senior Advisor, Ministry of Communications, Cuba, noted that despite ESCR’s long history, they are still not being addressed on an equal footing, and with the same weight, as CPRs, including in debates on Internet governance. The 2030 Development Agenda does provide an opportunity to put these rights at the heart of IG. Ms Carolyn Nguyen, Director of Technological Policy, Microsoft, shared this view, and pointed to the opportunity for ESCRs to align with the SDGs, and thereby broaden the discussion on IG, opening it up to different ministries, creating additional pressures, and establishing a more holistic, balanced discussion.

Ms Sally Wentworth, Vice President of Global Policy Developmen, Internet Society, focused on the issue of access and its inextricable linkage to human rights. She stressed that access does not simply stop with technology, but that it needs to be of sufficiently quality to empower individuals. Looking closer into access for women, Ms Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocacy Manager, Web Foundation, highlighted how the Internet is an enabling tool for women. Yet she noted that Internet shutdowns are keeping women from accessing meaningful information.

Ms Carla Reyes, Professor at Stetson University College of Law, explained how blockchain technologies could serve as a way to further incorporate ESCRs in the IG agenda, as it is a tool for distributed collaboration and more participatory decision making. Also looking into governance issues, Ms Sally Burch of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Información, addressed the issue that the governance systems that societies have built over decades are challenged by today’s Internet platforms. As a result, ESCRs can no longer be ensured solely by governments, and there are inadequate mechanisms to deal with this.

Ms Burcu Kilic, Legal and Policy Director, Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines, Innovation and Information Group, addressed the topic of trade agreements and the need to incorporate ESCRs in this area. She explained that ‘it doesn’t make sense for trade negotiators to think about these issues unless we bring them to their attention’.

Hamilton stressed that the Internet has led to changes of the ownership of information, which is not sustainable in the long run. Legal frameworks are needed, for example, to reform the copyright system, which is not able to address the challenges of the digital age.

The following Q&A addressed a wide range of topics, including the digital divide, digital literacy, the consequences of monopolies in the Internet sector, and the importance of gender-disaggregated data.

III The interconnections between CPRs and ESCRs

Summarising the preceding discussion, Mr David Souter, Independent Researcher and Writer, ictDA, highlighted several points:

  • The two covenants of rights are part of a single, indivisible rights regime. At the same time, they generally demand different roles for governments and businesses, which need to be taken into account.
  • The two covenants have an equal status and merit equal attention.
  • Efforts to achieve ESCRs can broaden and deepen the understanding of CPRs, and vice versa.
  • The Internet poses challenges and opportunities. When ESCRs are weakened, so are the CPRs that depend on them.
  • ESCRs are often associated with the SDGs, which provide a unifying framework.

Souter furthermore identified a number of crosscutting themes, such as nondiscrimination and equality, which are enshrined in both covenants.

The following discussion touched on connecting those without access, the crosscutting issue of Internet shutdowns, the interlinking role of freedom of expression, and the need for a human rights treaty related to the Internet to cut across all domains horizontally, including trade issues.

Vales proposed different ways forward to place human rights at the center of digital policy, including:

  • applying the principles from binding human rights law to the Internet.
  • thinking in terms of duty-bearers and right-holders, which would make it easier for individuals to claim remedies.
  • being aware of the application of the human rights framework to our everyday work on Internet policy.

Mr Frank La Rue, Assistant Director-General of Communication and Information, UNESCO, closed the session with a number of observations. He first emphasised the importance of placing human beings at the center of our considerations. Furthermore, all rights form an equal, interdependent, interrelated, and universal network, ‘if we break any part of it, it becomes useless’.

The right of freedom of expression has two dimensions: to access information and to transmit ideas. As the Internet empowers communication, it also makes the challenges and dangers to freedom of expression stronger and more profound. Freedom of expression is intrinsically connected to privacy, as a lack of privacy leads to insecurity in exercising freedom of expression. Rather than censoring content, we need to build critical minds in young people.

Communication is fundamental for development; without information, we cannot build knowledge societies and reach the SDGs, and in today’s ‘world of danger’, we have to reaffirm the human rights focus through a multistakeholder dialogue, as policies will not come from states or corporations alone. ‘This is the only alternative.’

by Barbara Rosen Jacobson