Human rights at the IGF: revealing abuse and framing discourse

“Autocracy 2.0 hides behind formal online freedom to identify and monitor critical voices which are then silenced in the offline world.”

—Valentina Pellizzer, 2012 IGF Closing Ceremonies

“Discussions about the internet and human rights must become more nuanced and more multi-stakeholder and cannot be left to governments alone.”

—Joy Liddicoat, Human Rights and Internet Governance

It is perhaps not surprising that human rights were a major point of discussion at the 7th Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which took place in Baku, Azerbaijan last week. Indeed, the IGF was a window into the abuse Azerbaijani citizens experience on a daily basis: harassment, restriction of written materials, self-censorship, hacking, and arbitrary restrictions to basic services.

Azerbaijan demonstrates the ways in which human rights issues weave in and out of online spaces. The internet may provide new opportunities to exercise fundamental rights and freedoms, but it can also be used in the violation of those rights. Online monitoring, propaganda, blackmail and State-sponsored cyber harassment are tools used by repressive regimes to exert power and silence dissent.

While the tactics to intimidate, harass and detain journalists and bloggers have deteriorated freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, they also spurred more nuanced debate at the IGF on the complex interaction between the internet and human rights. In many cases this discussion was framed explicitly in workshops on freedom of expression and association, privacy, security and access. Discussion also included rights set out by the ICCPR, such as the right to economic development. The right to participate in public life was discussed in sessions on ICT-enabled open governance and transparency, and in a session on cross-border jurisdiction, Article 29 of the UNDHR was mentioned in the context of balancing individual and community rights, and the protection of public order. Transparency, accountability and proportionality were promoted by a broad range of stakeholders across workshops in order to promote and protect the rights of internet users.

The language of human rights was not only used in a positive context, but also by repressive governments, seeking to co-opt the human rights agenda to exert greater power over internet governance in the name of ‘national security’. However, as Bill Smith, Senior Policy Advisor at PayPal pointed out, it is possible to develop strategies that protect both privacy and security online.

PayPal was not the only private sector representative to engage with human rights issues at the IGF. At a workshop on rights-respecting telecoms, a representative of TeliaSonera suggested not only that every company has a duty to respect human rights, but that respecting human rights can provide a competitive advantage. Google also hosted a critical debate on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan during the IGF, between blogger Ali Novruzov and youth group leader Rauf Mardiyevon, which it posted online.

Although many participants at the IGF recognised the importance of cultural norms and power inequalities in shaping online spaces, there was often no clear agreement on strategies to respond to these challenges. In a session on women’s empowerment, several participants discussed the ways in which women’s rights are both exercised and violated in online spaces, and the strategies for tackling online violence against women. When several participants pointed to social and cultural differences in online activity as a rationale for ‘tailored responses’, Yara Sallam, a woman human rights defender (WHRD) working for Nazra in Egypt recalled the value of a framing based on universal human rights, which apply to everyone.

At the human rights roundtable, co-hosted by APC, discussion focused on the recent Human Rights Council resolution, signed by 85 countries, which recognises that the same human rights that apply offline, also apply online. Questions arose as to how governments and other actors can be held accountable for their violations of human rights on the internet, and the role of multi-stakeholder processes in protecting those rights. Anja Kovacs, from the Internet Democracy Project, pointed out that human rights discourse must not focus solely on individuals who live in repressed, authoritarian environments. Rights-respecting policies by democratic societies are essential to impacting the DNA of online culture, as criminal law is increasingly being written into the code and content layer of the internet. Fadlah Adams, from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), spoke about the role of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) in connecting civil society and government on internet rights issues, and in taking these issues forward into spaces such as the Human Rights Council and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

As the lessons of the 7th IGF reverberate through the online sphere, many internet activists and bloggers have asked “What now?” How can leaders who spoke so powerfully in Baku keep up the pressure, and meaningful support Azerbaijanis? How can exposure to the day-to-day reality of authoritarian regimes inspire more informed and nuanced forms of opposition?

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