July 2005

Human Rights and ICT

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Rights that are valid in the real world are also valid in the 'virtual world'. The Information Society should be based on internationally agreed human rights. This is what Hivos voiced, in 2003, as a recommendation to the European Delegation to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, Switzerland. This recommendation reflected and still reflects our point of view, that one cannot discuss the concept and creation of an Information Society without starting with the atoms of any society: people. As a result, any discussion involving these people should incorporate their basic human rights.

This seems an obvious statement, and many stakeholders also supported the idea of an inclusive Information Society based on human rights, rather than on pure bits and bytes as a focus of the summit. Nevertheless, grand political statements uttered in Geneva do not automatically transform themselves into a better world. Human rights often seem to be the ideal subject to applaud, but not to adhere to.

Internet strengthens the right to freedom of expression by providing individuals across the globe with new means of sharing and accessing information. Despite the continued exclusion of marginalised communities and many people in the developing world, everyone with access can voice his or her opinion and access decision-makers and local politicians through discussion forums, blogs or through e-mail. ICTs as a tool, have potential for enabling democratic participation and for open information sharing. However, it is precisely due to this enormous freedom, that Internet breeds fear. Foremost  amongst those are some decision-makers. 

Stakeholders, mostly governments, find many reasons to justify Internet regulation (or in some cases – monitoring, censorship or control). These reasons have in common that they are all based on the concept of fear. There is fear of government for its citizens, or fear of citizens for their own governments and other threats like terrorism.

As such, governments in dictatorial states often find ways to limit Internet access in order to prohibit opposing opinions. For example, the Chinese government fears Falung Gong and managed to cut off the tentacles of the Internet, blocking search machines and websites. Freedom of expression and thus information and communication technology pose a threat to repressive governments, undermining their control of 'acceptable' flows of information. As a result, whilst Falun Gong members once used e-mail and websites to successfully reach out, nowadays they prefer payphones, which are harder to trace.

Privacy versus security
After 9/11, the USA has stepped up its homeland security. For instance, they requested the European Commission (EU) to provide online access to the Passenger Name Record (PNR) of all passengers on flight, from, to or through the USA. The PNR contains data such as name, date of birth, date of reservation, credit card number and phone number. Furthermore, the USA uses the Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS) of the airlines for additional information such as sex, passport number and nationality.

The transfer of this data is regulated and protected by the European privacy law. The Strasbourg Court is examining whether the European Commission, when making the deal, exceeded its powers and acted in breach of EU Data Protection legislation.

According to the report 'Transferring Privacy', the European Commission has 'not assured adequate protection requirements, clear purpose limitation, non-excessive data collection, limited data retention time, and insurance against further transfers beyond the Department of Homeland Security'.

Source: European Digital Rights (www.edri.org)/ Hivos 

Governments, companies and also parents try to filter unwanted content (pornography, racist websites, etc.) just like viruses.They reason that modern technology offers such a bewildering amount of information, that not all users are able to judge the content on its real value. This fear for harmful content has led to self-regulation by industry and to stronger juridical action by governments.

The fear for terrorism has led to massive tracking and registering of Internet behaviour by governments and, non-voluntarily, by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), both in the West and in 'rogue' states. Illustrating the consequences of this fear, Tunisia jailed 9 young Internet users for up to 26 years for just downloading files deemed as dangerous by the authorities. Preparing terrorist acts? Harmful content? Or, just curiosity?

Finally, for fear of their own government, citizens apply self-restriction in sending or finding opinions and information. In such cases, where governments can be perceived as threatening (such as Iran), self-censorship on the Internet is common. Through restricting this free flow of information, the biggest opportunities for an inclusive Information Society are lost.

Some of the described threats are real, some are perceived and some are not more than happy excuses for paranoid governments to control. Either way, they illustrate two dimensions: human rights and fear. One thing is clear that to guarantee the human rights in a new virtual era, these issues cannot be dealt in the national level only. In a true Information Society, there is no national level, and there are no frontiers. Independent media and citizens, expressing opinions and ideas on the Internet, are subject to national law, which is in accordance with international law and agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is important not to adapt the principles guided by human rights just because the technology offers us the excuse to avoid them.In the limited number of cases where interference is indeed necessary, for example to fight child porn or to prevent acts of terrorism, we should act within the regular borders of a civilised, democratic state. This means that we need the following clear rules for accountability and transparency:

Iran: cybercaf

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