Skip to main content

A tale from the Latin American and Caribbean preparatory meeting to the Internet Governance Forum

During three days at the end of September, the Colombian capital Bogota was host to the Latin American and the Caribbean fifth preparatory meeting for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) . Day one was dedicated to discussions on access and diversity and security, privacy and openness, day two to internet governance for development and critical internet resources and day three to emerging issues and the tacking stock and the way forward. This article provides a snapshot on the state of discussions in the region with regards to human rights and the internet.

Beside the main themes being discussed – and on which we will not expand here – at the Latin American and Caribbean preparatory meeting, emerging themes ruffled up the agenda. One of these new themes to hit the regional forum was coined the ‘Promotion, respect and defense of freedoms and of human rights on the internet’. This is where the tale starts.

It was established in Bogota that fundamental rights apply to the digital field, as much as they do to the non digital world. On this, all participants agreed. But where things became crispier, is on the question of access.

The split on access is a separation along the lines of those who believe that access to the internet is a human right in and of itself, and those who say that access is an integral part, and an essential part – it was specified – of already existing and recognised human rights.

In other words, if Latin Americans agree that access to the internet is a human rights issue, they disagree among themselves on how to treat access. On the one side, those who see access as an autonomous human right, mostly do so for a results-oriented reason (e.g., it would help uphold net neutrality, it would trigger obligations on behalf of governments to implement public policy to boost access to the internet). The others argue that treaties, as well as the interamerican court norms and rulings are sufficient to interpret rights in the digital sphere. To challenge the ‘revolutionaries’, the ‘conservatives’ – if we may call them that – insist that the current state of the law already includes declarations on freedom of speech and the internet. « Let’s conserve the actual human rights framework to promote access to the internet», they say.

The Latin American and Caribbean preparatory meeting didn’t get stuck on this fist-fight. The participants from civil society, government, the technical community and academia used the regional forum to express their views on the internet as a public good. Many stakeholders agreed with the notion, but many, we observed, insisted on the need to explicitly mention the risks associated to the inclusion of this notion in regional and national law. « One risk among many, » one participant pointed out, «is that by framing the internet as a public good, you’re basically giving a national government a blank cheque to regulate this public good at will… like for any other public good ». Worrisome it could be, some attendees murmured while nodding.

This brought in the next point of agreement. The internet as a medium does not only imply rights, but also responsibilities and duties, it was deliberated. There are two sides to a coin. It was for instance mentioned that the flip-side of the freedom of expression online is the right to privacy.

The revolutionaries were back for the next round, saying that the state should only be given the mandate to take care of internet infrastructure, while other sectors of society would take care of internet content. That clear-cut statement didn’t fare well with the comrades in the conservative camp. The latter stood up for self regulation of networks, arguing that this and only this is a guarantee for plurality and diversity of voices and content on the internet. But they fell short from saying that the state doesn’t have a thing to say in terms of content. The participants left the table without a consensus – which, it must be specified, is not an explicit goal of the IGF preparatory meetings – on the role of the state in both infrastructure and content. In the spirit of the forum, collaboration often starts where a dissensus exists.

Some participants in Bogota consider that governments in the Caribbean, but also Latin America, should become proactive in identifying and curtailing barriers to the full exercise of human rights online, in particular the right to information and the freedom of expressing one’s ideas.

After a few wranglings, the tale luckily ends on two rather positive notes. The visions – of the 163 participants in Bogota, added to those of the 483 people participating online – coincidentally converged on the need for training the general public and for building capacity of the continents’ population with regards to fundamental human rights and responsibilities stemming from one’s use of the network.

The already very rich session ended on final rally around some worrying legal developments. Participants pointed at recent cyber security bills and expressed their skepticism, especially where restrictive measures to control the content and access to the internet are imposed, often under a flawed justification that some content could be associated to child pornography or other criminal offenses. Child pornography and cybercriminality need to be fought against, everyone agreed, but new cybersecurity legislation in certain countries of the region (e.g., Panama, Costa Rica) is overstepping that objective and having perverse effects.

If one thing became clear in Bogota, it is that Latin Americans and Caribbean internet thinkers and doers are having very similar concurring perspectives and visions as those in other regional fora. It also goes to show that dialogue among multiple stakeholders, be they called revolutionaries, conservatives (for the sake of telling a tale), is the only way to create a common and enhanced cooperation among the internet user community. Stay tuned for a new chapter of this tale at the upcoming global Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan (November 2012).