All around the world, a debate rages over the protection of users’ actions and information online. In the developed world, this is seen primarily through the lens of personal privacy protections: how and when users’ data on popular services like Google and Facebook may be used commercially. Elsewhere in the world, the issues are often more stark, as what users say and do online can literally be a matter of life and death for them.
Entrepreneurs and service providers in the developed world, increasingly producing services, which are automatically global, need to understand the profound choices that users face worldwide.
At the CCIA office in Geneva we help translate the perspective of the technology sector’s understanding of various human rights issues for governmental decision-makers to help them understand how tech thinks about these issues. Geneva’s important as it is the home of the UN’s Human Rights Council, and as a result key decision-makers come together here several times a year.
The United States underlined its commitment to the promotion of Internet Freedom with a number of events held here last week as part of the Internet Freedom Fellows program, which brings a distinguished group of young human rights activists to Geneva, Washington and Silicon Valley to meet with US and international government leaders, members of civil society and the private sector. This year the group consisted of activists from Syria, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Venezuela and Azerbaijan. Speakers also included representatives from the International Red Cross, the ITU, the Institute for Human Rights and Business, and advocacy organisations like the Internet Society (ISOC), Access Now and the Global Network Initiative.
Rebecca MacKinnon, an influential Internet activist and CNN’s ex-Beijing bureau chief, kicked things off with an overview of the current human rights situation online. The most alarming trend: More and more Governments are using the Internet for blanket surveillance and systematic, targeted attacks on the communication channels of human rights activists. A blatant example are the 43 Azerbaijani who got interrogated by the secret police after they used their mobile phones to vote in favour of the Armenian entry during the 2011 Eurovision song contest. (Armenia and Azerbaijan still maintain a tense, conflict-laden relationship).
Several speakers highlighted that telecommunications and Internet companies often face difficult policy choices – both in authoritarian and democratic countries. While companies need to defend their users from intrusive government requests that could put them at risk, they are still bound by local laws. Too often, law enforcement agencies make abusive requests and disregard due process. At the same time, companies are not always fully aware of their responsibilities and can be too willing to comply with government requests. For companies, the key is to be fully transparent about their policies and procedures so that users can assess the risk of using a particular service.
Robert Wheelan, a security expert working at the International Red Cross, pointed out that in high-risk environments, free speech principles often run counter to security needs. People in conflict situations need to maintain full control over their online data – otherwise they face grave risks up to and including mortal danger. This is why many of them cannot use many popular Internet services.
Should there be a universal set of rules to govern how information is used on the Internet? Not according to these experts. The existing body of human rights law fully applies on the Internet, a fact that CCIA has welcomed. Also, in many areas of policy we will not be able to establish universally applicable rules due to regional and cultural sensitivities. For example, defamation and privacy laws are applied differently in the US and Europe.
The events in Geneva highlighted the vast potential of the Internet to enable and promote the exercise of human rights and provided valuable insights that forward-thinking technology sector leaders will want to factor into the design of their services as the Internet continues to spread them to an ever larger and more diverse user population.
Whether the use of data is discussed in the context of commercial applications or whether it’s about protecting the vulnerable: these are all aspects of the implementation of human rights in the online world.
The Internet Freedom Fellows will continue their journey to the East and then the West Coast of the US, where they meet with key Government, civil society and industry representatives, including from some of CCIA’s member companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo.