States must go beyond ensuring basic access... to empower citizens

Author's name: 
Alan Finlay
Geneva

Access to information is a fundamental right that needs to be realised in support of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCRs) – whether it’s information on life skills, social security grants, science and culture, or access to legal or educational resources. Access to information is also high on the global sustainable development agenda. As David Souter writes in an APC briefing document for the 32nd Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva: “There is much more recognition of the importance of access to information in the [2030 Sustainable Development] Agenda, including both information which can enable people to make decisions about their lives and information which can enable policymakers to address economic, social and cultural development more effectively.”

In other words, access to information is high on many government development agendas. Speaking at a side-event at the HRC on this issue, senior legal advisor to Article 19 David Banisar said that besides country commitments to improve access to information, about 100 countries have adopted laws on access to information.

While the internet is a clear enabler of access to information, there is also a need to understand better when it can serve as a useful enabler and when it doesn’t do such a good job in empowering people through the information they need to secure their rights. There are a number of issues here.

First is the more familiar one of paying attention to people who simply don’t have internet access. This is still an issue, which many governments don’t address sufficiently. David Kaye, the special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, suggests this is the difference between “digital” and “analogue” cultures.

Speaking at the same side-event, Kaye pointed to General Comment 34 paragraph 18 and 19 on Article 19, where it is stated that the right to information means that that information should be “accessible” to individuals – “easy”, “prompt” and “effective” to access. A key challenge for Kaye is the trend amongst public authorities to digitise information, and provide that to the public in the situation where the public still “used analogue tools”. A balance was needed, he said, in the digital age.

Governments are paying attention to this, but it is hard to assess how effective their interventions are. For example, in response to civil society critiques at the ESCR committee meeting at the HRC, the United Kingdom said that information on all worker rights is available online, and that in addition the government offers advisory and arbitration services for workers.

However, an issue that seems not to have been given sufficient attention to by governments is the different ways that groups and communities are empowered when using the internet. If this access is dynamic, confident and participative, groups have easier and more effective access to information, and more political agency. If access to the internet is static, inert and merely functional, political and social agency can be less. This first brings users closer to participative political power using the internet, while the second, still useful, requires other processes and mechanisms for participation.

A good example of the first kind of engagement is how many adolescents – or digital natives – use the internet. For example, in the report by the special rapporteur on health, focusing specifically on the mental and physical health of adolescents, the special rapporteur notes that: “..adolescents’ leading role in using and shaping new communications technologies places them in a position to built and utilize networks to promote their right to health, for example through information dissemination, data gathering, health campaign design, health education, peer-to-peer education…These skills and capacities mean that adolescents are uniquely positioned to contribute to the attainment of the Sustainability Goals.” (C.19).

Importantly, the special rapporteur makes the link between this relationship adolescents have with new technologies and accountability: They are also “uniquely positioned” to monitor and hold governments accountable to commitments on health.

Terms like “leading role” or “uniquely positioned” are important. It is likely to be a very different position, for example, to an 80-year-old woman who has access to the internet in her home, or to a blue-collar factory worker who accesses the internet on his mobile phone after hours. While the internet empowers adolescents to secure their rights to health, it doesn’t necessarily do that for other parts of society, or it does it differently. This can result in imbalances in empowerment and voice amongst citizens online. States have an obligation to understand when these imbalances have a notable negative impact on individual rights, and to redress these imbalances through other processes and mechanisms.

  • To know more about the Human Rights Council and what is at stake for internet rights, read our brief .
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