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Human Rights and Internet Protocols – Shared Values

Categories: Internet governance

By Joy Liddicoat [1], Project Coordinator, Internet Rights are Human Rights [2], Association For Progressive Communications (APC).

(Editor's note: This is one several contributions to GVA by civil society participants at this week's Internet Governance Forum [3] (IGF) in Nairobi, Kenya.)

As a young lawyer fresh out of law school working for victims of domestic violence, I quickly learned that protecting human rights and upholding the rule of law did not rest on the lofty aspirations and legal ideals of my jurisprudence lecturers. “Why did I bother with all this?” one client asked me “when my ex just ignores this and harasses me anyway and the cops are sick of coming when I call?”

I learned an important lesson: law draws moral authority from the wider social context in which it operates and by whether it works in practice.  I got involved in the women’s human rights movement to advocate for law reform and human rights.


iHub Nairobi. Flickr photo by zulusafari.

I heard my client’s voice and recalled this lesson again yesterday as I sat a workshop on Internet Governance Principles [5]on Day 2 of the IGF. The foundations of the IGF [6], as a United Nations mandated forum, are firmly grounded in human rights. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [7] is not a legally binding document. Its moral authority lies not in its lofty ideals and aspirational statements, but by the affirmation of it by all governments that are United Nations Member States.

While access and development have been high on the agenda at the 6th IGF, there has also been a lot of talk about rights, principles and internet governance. Reflecting on my own experience in the .nz [New Zealand] ccTLD [country code top-level domain] space it came to me: Human rights are as fundamental to internet governance as internet protocols are to the Domain Name System [8](DNS).

As a person new to the DNS and TCP/IP [9] (the networking protocols on which the Internet is based) I took a naïve and legalistic approach: I turned to some core Internet Engineering Task Force [10] (IETF) documents, in particular, RFC 1591 [11]on the Domain Name System Structure and Delegation (1994), to see how these were developed and what I could learn.  I was immediately struck by the way in which human rights and democratic values were clearly baked in to the internet. RFC [12] development, for instance, seemed to be infused with a kind of principled pragmatism so that, for example, they would only be adopted when there was a rough consensus to do so.

Then, when I looked at the actual wording of RFC 1591 the human rights aspects seemed compelling: there were clear concepts of public good and trusteeship. Administrators, for example, were said to be “performing a public service on behalf of the Internet community”.  The designated manager was referred to as “the trustee of the top-level domain for both the nation, in the case of a country code, and the global Internet community.”

The notion of good governance and responsibilities were also clear. When it came to choosing a designated manager for a domain, for example, the main concern “is that it be able to carry out the necessary responsibilities, and have the ability to do a equitable, just, honest, and competent job.” In addition, “Concerns about “rights” and “ownership” of domains are inappropriate.  It is appropriate to be concerned about “responsibilities” and “service” to the community.”

My early experience of such protocols was rights affirming and I could see parallels with the human rights concept that it is people, not governments, who have rights. Governments are duty bearers, required to protect the rights of their citizens, not their own power interests.

Yet as I listened to dialogue on internet governance principles at the IGF I was struck by the absence of any discussion about the way in which human rights form part of the very architecture of the internet.

Many participants at the IGF are attesting that governments are increasingly regulating and interfering with access to the internet in the name of their obligation to protect their citizens. These actions are increasingly becoming problematic not only because they undermine or violate the core human rights principles, but also those in relation to the DNS.

If we are to critique proposals for IG, we must do so with a better understanding of the shared rights and underlying values between human rights and the members of technical community who, with great prescience, ensured human rights were baked into the very design of the internet.

It is time for a new initiative to bring together the technical community and human rights advocates. We must work closer together to defend the shared values that are baked in to the internet and human rights to ensure that these are at the forefront in multi-stakeholder discussions about internet governance principles.

Human rights are as fundamental to internet governance as internet protocols are to the DNS and they will only have the meaning and moral authority we give them in practice.