Report of Google Dragonfly sparks human rights concerns

1 Aug 2018

The Intercept reports, based on leaked documents, that Google plans to launch a censored search engine called Dragonfly, in China. In the article, author Ryan Gallagher states that the app 'will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest'. Gallagher reports that this represents a clear shift in Google's China policy, opening a path for the first Google search engine in China in almost a decade. According to the article, websites blocked by the Great Firewall will be removed from the first page of results, although a disclaimer will explain that 'some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements'. In their commentary Google’s Dragonfly: A Bellwether for Human Rights in the Digital Age, Sarah McKune and Ronald Deibert do not find Google's 'change of heart' surprising, citing forces such as 'the entrenchment of digital authoritarianism, among both democratic and non-democratic countries, and the rollback of human rights'. McKune and Deibert conclude by warning 'A digitized world increasingly looks like a surveilled and censored world; options for engagement that do not compromise human rights in some form are dwindling'.

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The human rights basket includes online aspects of freedom of expression, privacy and data protection, rights of people with disabilities and women’s rights online. Yet, other human rights come into place in the realm of digital policy, such as children’s rights, and rights afforded to journalists and the press.

The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online is the underlying principle for human rights on the Internet, and has been firmly established by the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council resolutions.

Intermediaries play a vital role in ensuring Internet functionality. In several Internet governance areas, such as copyright infringement and spam, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are considered key online intermediaries. In other areas, such as defamation and the so-called right to be forgotten, the responsibility extends to hosts of online content and search engines.

Several international instruments guarantee the right to freedom of expression. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that this right includes the freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. The Internet, with the opportunity it offers people to express themselves, is seen as an enabler of the exercise of this particular human right. Although these freedoms are guaranteed in global instruments and in national constitutions, in some countries freedom of expression is often curtailed through online censorship or filtering mechanisms, imposed by states, often for political reasons.

One of the main sociocultural issues is content policy, often addressed from the standpoints of human rights (freedom of expression and the right to communicate), government (content control), and technology (tools for content control). Discussions usually focus on three groups of content:


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