Human Rights on the Internet, it´s time to catch up!

tmonti's picture
Tom Monti is a British bachelor graduate currently working with EPMA since October 2015 as an intern. As well as studying for a degree in International Business Management at the University of Lincoln, he also spent a year in Budapest working as a project manager in international cooperation and development, proposing and implementing EU funded projects in education, health, trade and public finance across developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia and the Middle East. Disclaimer: The views expressed by the article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the project

Human rights are designed to protect human beings. Three billion of these human beings use the Internet. The Human Rights Protocol Consideration Proposed Group (HRPC) hope to bridge the gap between human rights and the Internet, aiming to encode basic human rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) onto future Internet protocols. After undertaking research in order to expose the relationship between protocols and human rights, the group want to propose protocol guidelines to ensure human rights are enshrined online. Considering the beneficial nature of human rights and the quantity of global Internet users, the objectives of the HRPC must surely be popular with everyone… right?

Actually at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) 94) meeting in Yokohama at the beginning of November the proposed group, who have been conducting interviews with numerous stakeholders and participated in various working groups in order to extract general opinions regarding human rights and protocols, received its fair share of critical feedback from experts. Participants questioned the narrow focus of the HRPC, who are concentrating on just two articles of the UDHR´s 30 (articles 19 and 20 on the Freedom and Expression and Freedom of Association respectively), expressing dissatisfaction that it is always Freedom of Expression that is seen as the dominant right, while others are not considered. Further still, human rights are seen differently in different cultures, so how can it be possible to implement selected human rights, relevant in only certain regions, into a universal Internet used globally? Another expert suggested that the group are missing the point that allowing engineers and protocol developers the freedom to design without such regulation enables them to continue producing the very best protocols that benefit all and aid Internet growth, as opposed to forcing human rights regulation onto developers, hindering online innovation.

Fortunately for the HRPC group, who appear to be basing their strategy around the Request for Comments (RFC) 6973, a similar informative document on privacy considerations, each criticism can be counter argued. Take the narrow approach taken by the proposed group. Of course picking just two rights from 30 won´t end online human rights abuses full stop, however as was pointed out in Yokohama this is still a fairly new group; far better to begin cautiously then to risk getting entangled in multiple complex human rights issues by running before you can walk. There will be the chance to implement further rights once the group are established and can develop a larger strategy enveloping multiple UDHR articles. In that case why is it always Freedom of Expression that gets chosen? Why not other rights such as security or protection from attacks on reputation?  Well because after establishing that not all human rights can be focused on simultaneously, is it not natural to choose an article that is most relevant to one of the Internet’s primary characteristics, providing users the freedom to express their views in an open and unedited manner? Other human rights will come in time, but if we are going to start somewhere, what’s wrong with the beginning?

Moreover, though it is of course true human right ideals differ throughout cultures, the rights that HRPC are currently trying to implement come from the UDHR  and ICCPR, which form part of the United Nations´ International Bill of Human Rights, agreed on to at least some extent by the vast majority of the UN´s 193 member states. To put this into perspective the combined population of every country who has not signed the ICCPR at all totals just 1.7% of the global population. Clearly there is a willingness among national governments to at least appear to be taking human rights seriously.  Arguing against implementing some human rights online can seem hypocritical if a nation has agreed in principal to related aspects of human rights through bills or declarations.

Claiming that the proposed group are wrong in trying to encode human rights into protocol rather than allowing the designers to work without such regulation isn´t very progressive. The Internet Society, the parent organisation of the IETF,  focuses on ensuring that Internet related developments are achieved from a social and ethical point of view, with technicalities coming second. Protocol engineers have achieved a great deal and their work thus far should be respected immensely; enhancing society is the cornerstone of the Internet however, and so should outweigh any technical preferences whenever future protocol standards are developed.   

It must be clear that along with the more sceptical comments in Yokohama, the number who came out in support of the work of the HRPC and were interested in contributing to the group’s growth was promising. The group benefit from a clear and concise methodology that sets out the activities they will undertake. If chartered, the group will firstly translate human rights concepts into technical definitions so that they are related closer to protocols and standards, before mapping real examples of human rights being abused in protocols. By applying the new technical definitions of human rights to the real life cases, the group will be in a position to identify best practices in ensuring human rights are present in protocols, thus can develop procedures to systematically evaluate protocols for potential human rights impact. Further encouraging signs can be seen on the group’s mailing archive page, where discussion has picked up considerably in recent weeks indicating an increase in interest.

Having said that, it remains to be seen whether the group has what is required to successfully enshrine basic human rights onto future Internet protocols; the group are still in their infant stage with a long road ahead and a lot of influential stakeholders to win over. What is clear however is that the Internet has grown to become one of the planets most unexpected yet essential phenomena, having reached a point now where one of its main objectives is to benefit humanity from a social point of view. This, combined with the fact that designing protocols neutrally is pretty much impossible for humans anyway, makes the argument for at least some form of human rights encoding into Internet protocols very strong. Whether this step forward for the human rights movement and the Internet in general can be achieved by the HRPC Group remains unknown, if they receive official chartering in the near future as planned then at least they will gain formal recognition and a platform to start their research and the opportunity to produce outputs including internet drafts (including possible RFCs), policy papers and data analysis. I am hopeful that they do…it is time for human rights to catch up with the rest of the world and get on the Net!