(No.138) Internet and human rights: shared values for sound policies.

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Workshop Theme: 
Emerging Issues
Theme Question: 

Question 1

Concise Description of Workshop: 

In just a few decades, the Internet has demonstrated an exceptional ability in upholding fundamental human rights and democratic principles in unexpected ways and scale, empowering individuals across the globe to exercise a wide range of fundamental rights, such as the right to freedom of expression and opinion or the right to freedom of association.
Human rights standards were written with remarkable foresight to accommodate future technological developments; for example, article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), which includes the right “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” almost reads like a definition of the Internet even though it was written a quarter of a century before the development of the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). 
There is no doubt that the unique characteristics of the Internet, based on a model of open and collaborative approach to technology, standards and policy development, have been key to this success. The core values of the Internet pioneers, which are reflected in the development of Internet protocols and other core Internet architecture, were deeply rooted in the belief that the human condition can be enhanced by removing barriers to communication and information. 
But the openness of the Internet- based on shared global ownership, development based on open standards, and freely accessible processes for technology and policy development- should not be taken for granted: there have been in recent years many examples of public policy initiatives that seem, in certain cases, to encourage the use of technical measures to restrict access to content deemed undesirable, without due regard to the potential impact on an individual’s capacity to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and beyond the grounds on which limitations of these rights and freedoms are permitted under human rights standards.
Some of the main future threats to the exercise of human rights on the Internet may come from policy decisions based on a lack of understanding of the unique way in which the Internet's technologies and resources are developed and of the organic relationship that exists between the open Internet model and the exercise of fundamental rights.  
This workshop aims to engage a dialogue among all stakeholder groups, support respective efforts and help build stronger understanding on these issues, including on the following aspects: 

  • What are some of the shared values between the model of Internet development and the struggle for human rights?
  • When developing sound policy decisions, what conflicts arise between preserving open Internet architecture and preserving human rights? 
  • Are alterations of the way the Internet works altering the exercise of human rights as well? And, what is the impact of one on the other?
  • How can technology help Governments in their obligation to protect and promote the fundamental rights of their citizens?
  • Each stakeholder in the Internet ecosystem has different human rights roles and responsibilities. Is the combined human rights effect greater than the sum of its parts – how can these roles be developed to maximize respect for human rights? 

The workshop’s format will be that of an interactive roundtable discussion (note: would need hollow square setting or similar). There will be three framing interventions (max. 5 minutes each) followed by an active discussion among a set of discussants from a variety of regions and perspectives. The workshop will also foster interaction with the live and online participants. 

Organiser(s) Name: 


  • Mr. Nicolas Seidler, Policy advisor, Internet Society. Region: WEOG. Stakeholder group: Internet technical community. 

  • Ms. Joy Liddicoat, Internet Rights are Human Rights Project Coordinator, Association for Progressive Communications. Region: WEOG. Stakeholder group: civil society.


Submitted Workshop Panelists: 


  • Mr. Markus Kummer, Vice President, Public Policy, Internet Society. Status: confirmed. 

[Introductory speakers]

  • Mr. Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Stakeholder group: IGO. Region: GRULAC. Status: confirmed.
  • Ms. Subi Chaturvedi, activist and assistant prof. of journalism and communication (Delhi University). Stakeholder group: academia. Region: Asia-Pacific. Status: confirmed.
  • Ms. Avri Doria, Research Consultant. Stakeholder group: civil society. Region: WEOG. Stakeholder group: civil society. Status: confirmed.


  • Mr. Patrik Fältström, Head of Research and Development, Netnod. Stakeholder group: Internet technical community. Region: WEOG. Status: confirmed.
  • Mr. Jean-Paul Nkurunziza, Trainer in Computing and Internet Policy. Stakeholder group: civil society. Region: African. Status: confirmed.
  • Ms. Theresa Swinehart, Executive Director, Global Internet Policy, Verizon. Stakeholder group: business. Region: WEOG. Status: confirmed.
  • Mr. Emin Milli, Azerbaijani writer. Stakeholder group: civil society. Region: EEG. Status: confirmed.
  • Mr. Lee Hibbard, Coordinator for Information Society & Internet Governance, Media and Information Society Division, Council of Europe. Stakeholder group: IGO. Region: WEOG. Status: confirmed.
  • Ms. Joy Liddicoat, Internet Rights are Human Rights Project Coordinator, Association for Progressive Communications. Region: WEOG. Stakeholder group: civil society.
  • Mr. Johan Hallenborg, Special Adviser, Department for International Law, Human Rights and Treaty Law, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden. Stakeholder group: government. Region: WEOG. Status: confirmed.
  • Ms. Jillian C. York, Director for International Freedom of Expression, Electronic Frontier Foundation. Stakeholder group: civil society. Region: WEOG. Status: confirmed.
Name of Remote Moderator(s): 
Mr. Luca Belli (confirmed)
Gender Report Card
Please estimate the overall number of women participants present at the session: 
About half of the participants were women
To what extent did the session discuss gender equality and/or women's empowerment?: 
It was mentioned briefly in the presentations and discussions
Reported by: 
Nicolas Seidler, Policy Advisor, Internet Society
A brief substantive summary and the main issues that were raised: 

The objective of the session was to foster a dialogue on the relationship and mutual dependencies between the open nature of the Internet and the ability for individuals to exercise key human rights in the online environment, in particular freedom of expression and freedom of association.

A draft paper developed by the Internet Society and the Association for Progressive Communications - comparing the processes and the principles between human rights and key Internet protocols – provided a background for discussions. Both the analysis and the workshop participants considered the perspective of human rights’ values being very much part of the Internet’s DNA;
The way the Internet’s architecture was designed - decentralized, distributed, end-to-end - empowers individuals at the edges of the network rather than the center. The global network and its underlying protocols and standards are developed by engineers under the umbrella of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which processes are open to anybody, with no sign up sheets and no membership fees. The keys to the Internet’s technical development are basically in the hands of its own community of users, an open and bottom-up approach which resonates with democratic traits. 

Several speakers shared the view that by fostering and developing an open Internet, the Internet technical community has de facto become a key contributor for human rights. One panelist even raised the emerging notion of network engineers as human rights defenders. An interesting insight was shared about the context of early pioneer Internet developments in the 1960s in the United States, marked by strong civil rights movements echoing the importance of protecting human rights and individual freedoms that drove the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights some 20 years before the creation of the TCP/IP protocol. From that perspective, the Internet and human rights would share core notions of individual empowerment, which are reflected in the processes and principles driving the evolution of the Internet.

One of the panelist mentioned India as an example of a large and diverse country where unifying factors are essential to hold the diverse communities together. The Internet has emerged as one such factor, in particular through the rapid expansion in mobile Internet use. The Internet fosters innovation at the edges without the need to ask for permission, which has been driving economic growth in this country. The same network architecture also enables the articulation of social movements in a decentralized manner, creating spaces for dialogue. Social media platforms were mentioned as new ways for people to exercise their right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly in the online world. It was however emphasized that this “decentralized thinking” requires skills and an ongoing learning process for traditional societies.

Beyond playing an important role in expanding political, economic, social and cultural rights, the Internet can also play a positive role in supporting human rights activism, raising awareness around human rights violations. The Internet is meant to be a force for knowledge and freedoms.

However, there are two sides to the Internet’s openness, and the same technology can also be used to restrict freedoms. 

Authoritarian regimes who have historically never paid more than lip-service to their citizens’ freedoms have become increasingly technologically savvy in undertaking actions to suppress freedom of empowerment online (e.g. censorship technology, online surveillance, cutting off access).
Even countries with strong democratic traditions are tempted to use short term technical measures (e.g. DNS blocking or filtering) to address issues such as security or copyright enforcement, often loosing sight of the bigger picture.

The example of Azerbaijan was mentioned during the discussion, as a case where people can access the open Internet without prior restrictions, but where the exercise of the right to express opinions and ideas can create serious risks of persecution in the offline environment. Several cases were mentioned where people were persecuted as a result of online activities that would normally fall under freedom of speech protections. In other words, it is not because technology is free of access that the use of technology is free from consequences. This is also what several commentators in Baku referred to as the importance of freedom after expression.

A key takeaway from the discussion was about the importance of further building the relationships between stakeholders who touch upon human rights issues. The significant number of IGF sessions related to human rights and the diversity of stakeholders involved in those discussions reflects an important trend towards considering online rights issues from a multi-stakeholder perspective. Beyond Governments and civil society, all actors of the Internet are becoming sensitive towards human rights concerns, including business and the Internet technical community. In this regard, the notion of enhanced cooperation within and between existing organizations of the Internet ecosystem is very relevant in the context of reinforcing human rights in the online environment. Everyone has limited capabilities, and a shared approach is needed.

Finally, one panelist from Azerbaijan confirmed the importance of the IGF as a forum to exchange ideas, but also for holding the IGF in such places like Baku as it gave the Azeri civil society a global platform for talking about issues they would otherwise not be able to talk about. As the IGF heads toward new host countries, this provides an interesting local perspective on the debate whether it was opportune or not to hold the Forum in countries with questionable human rights approaches.

Conclusions and further comments: 
  • The open Internet and human rights have developed deep and complex dependencies. Threats to the open Internet also impede on individuals’ ability to exercise some of their most fundamental rights such as freedom of expression or freedom of association. The role of the Internet technical community, namely through open standards development, has become crucial for several human rights.
  • We are at a time of affirmation for human rights online and it is likely that the online/offline duality will not stay many more years. However the applicability of existing rights in the online environment remains an important issues, and there is a need to continue analyze how Internet and human rights map together in order to better address new challenges.
  • The IGF is an ideal forum to share opinions and best practices on human rights-related issues, providing a space for stakeholders to socialize and offering the opportunity to shed light on local challenges. It is essential, however, to further cooperation beyond the IGF, and to identify new ways to collaborate and participate in other relevant processes (e.g. Human Rights Council, civil society and business initiatives, open standards development, etc.).