The human rights paradigm in internet governance: An interview with David Souter

David SouterDavid Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than 20 years on the relationship between information and communications technologies (ICTs) and public policy, particularly in the areas of development, the environment, governance (including internet governance) and rights. He joined this year’s edition of the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG) as a faculty member, focusing on the relationship between internet governance and human rights.

APCNews: What type of role would the internet play in achieving sustainable development goals in Africa?

DS: It’s a supportive role, rather than a decisive role. There are ways in which services which are available through the internet can be used for specific goals like in the areas of health and education. But I think the most important factor is access, where people have the opportunity to do things themselves. I think that has more effect on economic growth and social equity.

APCNews: The slogan “human rights enjoyed offline, should be enjoyed online” – what happens in situations where governments are repressive offline, even though human rights are enshrined in their constitutions? Is the internet a new way to enjoy rights?

DS: The notion that rights are the same offline and online seems to be obvious to me. Because, the rights instruments are meant to be universal, so I can’t see how they could in any case be different offline and online. That also applies to the limits to rights.

Whether a government complies with the human rights regime, well, that’s a separate issue and that’s about what the government is like. So, frankly, if a government doesn’t respect rights offline, it’s not going to respect rights online. The difficulties that arise with interpreting rights online are to do with the fact that many of the ways in which people exercise rights or the ways in which rights can be violated are different from offline. The rights themselves aren’t different, but the way in which they are exercised, promoted or violated can be different. Especially in the case of external jurisdiction, where things are happening outside of the country.

APCNews: Is there such a thing as privacy on the internet?

DS: It becomes extremely difficult. Not so much the internet, it’s the Internet of Things, big data, cloud computing… so it’s the things that come with the internet as it’s developing. So my view on that is, in the past we could largely choose what information was held about us, gathered about us, retained about us… but now most of that is gathered and retained, by default, by private companies and to a lesser extent by governments. We have no control really over the data that’s gathered about us and that will get much more difficult as well with the Internet of Things, where our fridge will be recording what food we eat and so forth. Everything about us will be known.

APCNews: Why are human rights so important to the internet governance discourse?

DS: Because it’s involved in any governance discourse. The human rights framework was one of the outcomes of the great catastrophe of the Second World War. That people for the first time wanted a system, a framework that identified what were their rights and freedoms. So it’s important to everything going forward; internet governance is part of governance.

APCNews: What do you think the future holds for Africa in terms of the internet and internet governance?

DS: At the moment, African countries have much lower internet access levels than the rest of the world. Access in these terms is not just connectivity, but it’s about the speed of connectivity, affordability, it’s about the capabilities people have to make use of internet services. Which includes things like literacy and is therefore bound up with development more generally. I think it’s also about the production of the internet as well as the consumption. So beyond the fact that Africans are underrepresented in terms of access, they are even more underrepresented in terms of content production. So all of these things are going to evolve and they will be new opportunities that will arise.

As for internet governance, the internet is increasingly dominated by global corporations, and Africa does not have global corporations. It has regional businesses like MTN, which are substantial, but they don’t form part of global corporations. I think there are big questions there about how you inject an African dimension in decision-making processes.

David Souter has a weekly blog on APC.org, where he discusses everything internet governance. Find out more here.

One on one interview conducted by Yolanda Mlonzi for APCNews.

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