Making the Internet work for Human Rights: The Internet Rights and Principles Coalition

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post was written by Dixie Hawtin, co-chair of the Dynamic Coalition on Internet Rights and Principles of the Internet Governance Forum. It is part of a new effort by Global Voices Advocacy to inform our community and the broader public about the issues, debates, organizations, and coalitions surrounding the policy and governance processes that will determine the Internet's future.

In 2005, amidst heated debates in the run-up to the World Summit on the Information Society about the Internet's future a group of eminent experts – including Lawrence Lessig, Richard M. Stallman and Stefano Rodotà – issued an appeal for a “Charter of Rights for the Net” in response to what they saw as growing threats to the public interest dimension of the Internet. The Internet Rights and Principles coalition was formed in answer to this call.

The Internet Rights and Principles coalition is one of the dynamic coalitions created under the auspices of the Internet Governance Forum. We are an open multi-stakeholder network of individuals and organisations committed to upholding human rights standards in Internet governance policies and processes.

Reflecting on the 2011 Internet Governance Forum in Kenya, it is clear the Internet Rights and Principles coalition’s vision of upholding human rights standards in Internet governance is more challenging, and more important, than ever.

It is well established that the Internet is a hugely important tool for defending human rights – it allows us to share information about human rights abuses globally in real time, to build communities with shared values, and to mobilize and collaborate to demand change. It also allows us to more fully realize our human rights, particularly the right to freedom of expression which incorporates not only receiving information, but also seeking and imparting it. At the same time, the internet presents many challenges for human rights such as persistent digital divides, censorship, and privacy violations. The internet is changing rapidly, and as governments –for reasons both legitimate and illegitimate – seek to effect greater control of the medium, and businesses seek to monetise it, we risk losing the open nature of the Internet, and with that much of the potential to shape a more egalitarian world.

“Technology is neither good, nor bad, nor is it neutral” so goes Kranzberg’s first law of technology. The challenge for human rights advocates is multifaceted. We must seek to use the tools to advance progressive values, at the same time we must seek to shape the environment, to protect and expand its potential as a human rights enabling space.

Over the past few years the IRP has, through online wikis, email discussions, and widespread consultation elaborated a Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet. The Charter applies existing human rights standards to the Internet, explaining what they mean in the new emerging environment. The Charter also elaborates internet policy principles, such as network neutrality, which are not direct translations of human rights standards but which are necessary to create an ecosystem which supports human rights.

The Charter is an evolving document, the latest version can be read here. At the 2010 IGF in Vilnius we decided that a shorter, “punchier” advocacy document was needed. A small group formed to distil the Charter down into 10 key principles. The 10 IRPs were launched in March 2011 and have to date been translated into more than 20 languages by volunteers.

The environment that the IRP is working within is changing rapidly. In recent years efforts to control the Internet are growing. The OpenNet Initiative, for example, finds an ever-increasing array of countries engaging in some forms of online blocking and filtering. Many governments are tiring of the multi-stakeholder dialogue model of internet governance embodied in the IGF and are instead turning to state-dominated institutions such as WIPO and the OECD. Others are calling for a new global internet policy body. The form such a body might take is still open but there are real fears that it would not be as open to civil society participation and that, as a consequence, human rights concerns would be given less weighting. In addition, given the open and flexible nature of the Internet there’s a concern that government control will be too bureaucratic and slow paced to facilitate rapid growth and change.

In a parallel trend, the last year has seen a proliferation of initiatives advancing sets of principles for Internet governance. These include the OECD Communiqué on Principles for Internet Policy‐Making released in June 2011; the Council of Europe Internet Governance Principles; and the on-going Aspen Institute International Digital Economy Accords. Some of these initiatives represent governmental attempts to define principles, others represent a corporate view, and the IRP Charter (together with other civil society documents such as the APC Internet Charter) is what civil society brings to the table.  Therefore the next stage is to see how these contributions can work together to strengthen the normative framework

The way forward. One key theme for the IRP during the IGF 2011 was the need to adapt to these new circumstances in order to have an impact, and this means adapting our strategies and activities.

We decided that we should no longer use our resources to try and create a perfect and definite Charter within the Coalition. Given the on-going efforts to create such a Charter by other actors, our attempts would be likely to be superseded. Instead we should recognize that the Charter has been a very useful platform for us to raise awareness about the importance of protecting and promoting human rights and building consensus about what international human rights standards mean in the internet environment. Now we need to be more externally facing, engaging with the initiatives and dynamics that are actually shaping the Internet.

Our aim is to act as a human rights filter for other initiatives – advocating for the highest level of protection for human rights. This will mean engaging with initiatives in many forums, beyond the IGF. One initiative that we have been invited to feed in to is the work of the Council of Europe to create a Charter of Users Rights. Within the IGF too there are talks about an attempt to build an IGF-wide multi-stakeholder set of shared Internet Governance principles. This is an attempt to reassert the authority of the IGF as the key forum for internet governance issues, and provide a valuable output to guide internet policy making. Here too the IRP has a genuine opportunity to promote a human rights framework for the Internet.

We must continue work with others to build a strong movement for human rights in Internet governance. The 10 IRPs are particularly well designed for such an effort. We must translate them into more languages, particularly the most-widely spoken languages which are still missing such as Russian, Chinese and Japanese. And we need to promote them more proactively to others who are working towards this goal. Finally we must use the 10 IRPs to draw attention to issues where human rights standards are being, or risk being, violated on the Internet. Other groups (such as APC, Access and the Internet Governance Caucus) are already making statements, where our interests overlap we will endorse these and promote them amongst our networks. Instead, our aim should be to draw attention to issues which are not already publicized.

These are exciting times in the internet governance world, and the need to promote a human rights approach is urgent. Decisions are being made now which will shape the Internet environment for years to come. If you are interested in what we are trying to achieve and would like to participate, please do join our email list by signing up here.

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