11 March 2011
Below is a transcript of a speech given by Access Executive Director Brett Solomon to the Conference on Internet Freedom during the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, March 4th, 2011.
When George Orwell introduced us to Big Brother in 1949, could he have predicted that after just a few generations, governments,ISPs, and social networks would be monitoring our every move online and search engines would be surreptitiously linking together our likes, dislikes and political preferences into predictive algorithms? And yet, that same technology which some believe is foisting upon us a gross invasion of privacy – as well as convenience — is for others catalyzing liberation movements and fueling revolutions. That paradox is one of the reasons why we have gathered here today. What has transpired in the Middle East over the last few weeks is the most recent example of the enormous change the world faces in the Internet age.
The rise of the Internet has created opportunities for sharing information, enhancing collaboration, and growing our prosperity. But it has also given cause for serious concern for governments, corporations and individuals. For example whistleblower protection laws, viewed as a cornerstone of anti-corruption measures, are now being called into question by governments as a result of sites like Wikileaks, which have unleashed unprecedented transparency and openness. Digital activists are using social networking platforms to rapidly grow movements for reform and change.
But the digital fingerprints of online organizing make it easy to clamp down on freedom and target the leaders of dissident groups. And censorship laws and Internet filtering are providing a convenient mechanism for governments to stifle creativity and cripple civil society actors.
The message of the Internet is most certainly in its medium. The instantaneous nature of how ideas are broadcast online explains in part the speed at which revolutions have unfolded in places like Egypt and Tunisia. As observed this week in the Guardian, the loose and non-hierarchical organization of people online is unconsciously modeled on the networks of the web, making it exceedingly difficult to control, short of a complete shut down of the entire network. And even then, as Egypt has shown, when the network goes down, the people move back offline in even greater numbers. The decentralized architecture of the web makes it difficult to impose governance standards on something inherently averse to limitation and boundaries.
Access is a grassroots-driven global movement for digital freedom. Our members are actively involved in our campaigns to preserve Internet freedom and protect the rights of digital activists around the world. As we prepared for this presentation we reached out to our 60,000 strong global movement. We recognize the contributions that our members in Egypt, Libya, UK, Bahrain, Brazil, China and Pakistan, made to this speech. In fact in the last 72 hours, we received feedback people in 170 countries – all online.
Here is what we heard.
Some countries have risen to the occasion – declaring Internet access a human right and barring the unilateral restriction of access without proper judicial review. In most other countries, the people are way ahead of their governments. BBC’s global survey last year found almost four in five people believe Internet access is a fundamental right — even if they don’t have access to the net themselves. Often, public policy has not caught up with the lofty rhetoric around openness and Internet freedom. The Internet Kill Switch bill circulating in the United States Congress is a perfect example – granting the President the power, albeit with some caveats, to unilaterally switch off the Internet in the interests of national security.
Indeed, the threats to Internet freedom are diverse and in no way the sole purview of authoritarian governments. In open societies, the public and private sector are vying to be in control of the information that people can access online. Indeed, almost all information online — everything from websites, to blogs, to videos, and photos — is increasingly hosted, and thereby controlled, by corporations, whose Terms of Service rarely contain free speech protections or other rights-respecting language. Indeed, we’re told most people are confused about the positions of online platforms – including Facebook, Gmail and Youtube which reserve broad rights to remove content, and this lack of protections gives them less ground to stand on should they wish to protest governmental requests to remove content or connectivity. While the takedown processes are usually quite clear, people feel that the appeals process for restoring access or information is often murky at best. Understanding the value chain in the ICT industry exposes the potential sites of human rights abuses – for example the drivers of the abuse may take place in the software, or the manufacture of the chip, or in the functionality of the network.
But the ICT sector has changed our world forever – and for that the Internet generation is deeply appreciative. Where Internet access is available it quickly becomes embedded in all aspects of society. The operations of banks, stock markets, schools, and hospitals would grind to a halt when networks are down. Yet we’ve seen that access to the Internet is fragile – it can be blocked, literally, with the flick of a few switches or a handful of phone calls, bringing a nation’s economy to its knees and subjecting its people to an information black hole that renders possible a wide array of other more “traditional” forms of abuse.
This is why what happened in Egypt is in fact so shocking. What’s notable about the protests there and those that are sweeping MENA right now is the way in which they have taken the political establishment by surprise. “Old” methods of control simply don’t work as well. While social media has not been the cause of the recent tide of democratic uprisings, it has changed the nature of the cat-and-mouse game between leaders and those who would resist them.
The Internet generation is not amenable to ‘governance’ that seeks to create a singular “official” narrative of a nation’s history and future. Social media is designed to highlight what’s popular, to represent the pulse of a people, and armed with this information, it is not hard for people who were previously never politically active, to see the growing cracks in a government. In our survey to over 170 countries this week, 93% believe that governments do not have the right to cut off Internet access to their people. More than 80% believe that human rights must be respected online. That is why the contemporary and successful modern state will embrace the changes that the Internet generation is offering it.
It is true that there are huge swathes of the earth’s population where a wifi connection cannot be found for hundreds of miles. Are we ignoring the digital divide? I would argue not. Access to mobile networks is now available to 90% of the world population and 80% of the population living in rural areas. There is an estimated 5.3 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide, including 940 million subscriptions to 3G services. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, there were substantially fewer countries that recognized and protected the rights set forth in that document. More than sixty years later we are witness to the onward march of democracy, freedom and justice. The people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have demonstrated that these values are not American or European but they are, in fact, universal values to which all people aspire. And our communications across the world confirm this.
But it is more than just the state that must adapt. In many courtrooms, laws are interpreted in a manner that narrowly defines people’s rights to freedom of expression online. These precedents, such as the one that holds a webmaster liable for comments posted by an anonymous user, thus facing 20 years in prison, endanger us all, in every jurisdiction. The judiciary must find an effective means of upholding copyright, libel, and national security imperatives but not at the expense of basic human rights or freedoms. The legal profession must recognize where rights are at risk online and defend people’s ability to comment anonymously, to enjoy their right to freedom of assembly online, and to have uniform access to the internet’s content, free from prioritization, discrimination, censorship, filtering, or traffic control.
Our movement, spread across the world, believes that the international community must adopt a coherent position on Internet freedom, within the context of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the UDHR – to protect individuals from these pressures on our rights. As one of our members said, “There needs to be a method of protecting human rights online that protects the rights of individuals, prevents governments from taking action against their citizens, yet holds the world to an open standard that advocates the best interest of the individual and the global community as a whole.” These standards will reflect the timeless wisdom of those who framed the UDHR – and it will also incorporate an understanding of the new opportunities and threats to human rights presented by new technology.
The urgency of the moment can therefore not be overstated. A person’s inviolable right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression in the real world has real world implications in the virtual world and vice-versa. As the discourse around human rights migrates online we can see that the legal and ethical implications do not have straightforward answers.
But the world’s people are pretty clear about what principles they believe should govern the Internet. In our survey, their top 5 were: Human rights must be respected online; the Internet shall be governed in a transparent and multilateral manner; respect for life, liberty, and security shall be protected in cyberspace; freedom of expression and opinion shall be enjoyed in the online environment; and the Internet shall be free from censorship and discrimination.
This is the application of human rights in the digital age – or if you will, digital rights – and I see them as having three elements. Firstly, it is the application of the international human rights framework applied to the Internet. For example, freedom of speech must be protected as fervently online as it is offline. Secondly, there may well be the evolution of new rights that are unique to the digital sphere – such as Internet access as a right unto itself. This area must be approached with caution as new rights must never be a substitute for existing rights or an opportunity to water down others. And finally, rights are enabled via access to the Internet – such as the right to health care through remote medicine, or the availability of education through online learning.
Let us not fall back on politics, old divisions or ideology as we move into this new and exciting era of human rights online.
The scope of the Internet’s potential – the power of real Internet freedom – is to facilitate the full enjoyment of our digital rights. And that is limited only by our imagination.
In the coming years decisions will be made that will determine the future course of Internet governance, and by extension Internet freedom. And that makes the Internet generation nervous. We hope the rights and responsibilities of service providers, users and of regulatory agencies will start to coalesce around standards that reflect international norms on the rule of law and human rights. Conversations such as the one we are having today are essential in establishing a framework that is beneficial for all. These measures will help to protect the rights of citizens, governments, and corporations in an environment where interests are not always in alignment.
The Access community believes there are concrete steps that can be taken be key stakeholders to push forward the agenda for Internet freedom.
We propose that the Human Rights Council:
• Recognize the importance of digital rights and to use the HRC forum as a space to ensure that such rights are respected, protected and promoted. It should adopt as one of its core principles, to defend, support and promote all initiatives that extend the right to expression and information – including to the Internet and the mobile networks – as a fundamental human right;
• Incorporate as part of its Universal Periodic Reviews of all United Nations member states clear analysis and recommendations on Internet freedom, digital rights and Internet repression; and
• Utilize more broadly the Special Procedures mechanism and take advantage of the June session of the Human Rights Council by looking at the right to freedom of expression online, as well as other rights on the Internet as a means to maximize the way in which its mandate is implemented.
We propose that States:
• Take a stand on digital rights, to consider enshrining the right to access the Internet without arbitrary interference into their national laws or even their constitutions;
• Stop filtering the Internet and blocking sites, blogs and news sources, and end online means of surveillance and monitoring;
• Give up all plans to develop an Internet kill switch, and match any attempt to cut off another’s Internet access with the condemnation; and
• Prevent the export of advanced surveillance technology to countries where it will be used to breach human rights.
And we propose that Corporations:
• Audit their policies when it comes to protecting Internet freedom to ensure that they are consistent with human rights, including things such as provision of service in times of emergency;
• Uphold the right to freedom of speech by establishing rights-respecting policies and practices that protect online content and developing internal structures for the management of human rights; and
• Work with States to ensure that their platforms, products and services do not result in tacit or explicit support for non-rights respecting states.
In closing I would like to congratulate the Human Rights Committee on its decisions regarding Libya’s presence in this body. Our first and foremost concern lies with the enjoyment of human rights around the world especially those who risk life and limb in pursuit of human dignity. I would also like to applaud the vision of this convening. We hope this is the first of many interventions on this issue.
I do believe, like many of our members, that our only hope for success in developing a sustainable framework for Internet governance and the rights associated with Internet access will be through a collaborative and multi-lateral, multi-institutional approach – including through the Internet Governance Forum – and through direct involvement of the user, the citizen. Let us rise to that challenge.
To honor the people of Tunisia who gave people across the region inspiration to stand up for their human rights, I would like to close with a few lines by al-Shaabi, who has been called by many the poet of the Tunisian revolution.
Demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia were frequently heard reciting some of his poems, which praise freedom and humanity in the face of tyranny and oppression.
In “If the People Wanted Life One Day” he gives us something to ponder:
Then it was earth I questioned:
“Mother, do you detest mankind?”
And earth responded:
“I bless people with high ambition,
Who do not flinch at danger.
I curse people out of step with time,
People content to live like stone.”