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What do we mean when we say economic, social and cultural rights (ESCRs) and the internet? This is the question that opened the session hosted by APC at the Internet Freedom Festival on 10 March in Valencia, Spain.

“While civil and political rights are individual rights, economic, social and cultural rights are for individuals and also for groups and communities. Also, ESCRs are rights that are realised progressively, they require resources,” APC’s Deborah Brown explained in her introduction to the session. APC started working in this area three years ago, after noticing that advocacy efforts around the internet were focused on civil and political rights, mostly on surveillance and censorship.

The Committee on ESCRs is in charge of reviewing how states that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are meeting up to their obligations around these rights. Its work was introduced to participants in the session.

What is the impact of the internet on ESCRs?

Research on this issue includes the 2016 edition of Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch), which features thematic and national chapters looking at different contexts, connecting each country with global trends.

Participants presented specific cases such as Bosnia and Herzegovina (part of the former Yugoslavia), a state with two entities (federation, republic). Its constitution is part of the Dayton Peace Agreement, and protection of national identities is at its core. Valentina Pellizzer of OneWorld Platform focused on the right to culture and on citizens’ initiatives that used the internet to re-open the national museum and to create an archive on women’s participation during World War II and the post-war period, taking advantage of the internet for campaigning as well as for archiving purposes.

Some repressive governments have used ESCRs (in particular cultural rights) as the framing to restrict other fundamental rights. For example, a government may defend its practice of discriminating against women, or criminalising the use of a minority language, as an exercise of its cultural rights. But states are the duty bearers, not the holders of rights, and as the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action on Human Rights notes, human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent. While there are tensions between rights that need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, one right cannot be used to undermine another right.

What does a violation of ESCRs through the internet look like? With civil and political rights, this question is more straightforward – a government censoring online content or conducting mass surveillance. However, even though when it comes to ESCRs, states have space to realise rights progressively, they have the obligation to not take retrogressive measures that interfere with the exercise of ESCRs. Take, for example, the situation in Kashmir and parts of Cameroon where there have been long-term internet shutdowns, which have had an impact on education and other ESCRs. This can be seen as a retrogressive measure, which is at odds with a state’s obligation to make full use of the maximum available resources to realise ESCRs.

Processing of personal data was mentioned as an increasingly a pressing issue, profiling users and restricting their rights. Is this discriminatory and how does it interfere with ESCRs? The ICESCR requires that states eliminate discrimination in the enjoyment of ESCRs. The advent of big data, and the rise of automatic processing of personal metadata for individual profiling, may lead to discrimination, which can impact the enjoyment of ESCRs, like the right to work or health. The Human Rights Council is discussing this issue this week.

A critical area to look at is indicators of progressive realisation. Some countries, like South Africa, have the policies but not the implementation. What do we mean by progressive realisation and how do we measure it? What are the indicators? If we do not have a clear idea of those, it is hard to measure violations and point at responsibilities. We also need to be wary of figures, as governments often change methodologies to claim improvements – a practice that is very common in countries like Mexico, for example.

Access was, again, mentioned as a key component. Civil society should put more emphasis on states’ obligation to provide access, public access facilities, and universal access funds to enhance development. Access remains key for the internet to be considered a public good.

The Internet Freedom Festival, which takes place in Valencia, Spain on a yearly basis, has become one of the main events for civil society to gather around issues of surveillance, censorship and circumvention worldwide. Hundreds of activists, journalists and members of the technical community get together to explore trends, challenges and strategies.