The Internet and Human Rights: a new frontier?

The Internet can strengthen human rights through the enhancement of the realization of freedom of expression, allowing people to receive information and seek to impart it as required in article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

It is not under state control and after the Arab spring, it would be naive for anyone to imagine that governments are comfortable about a media that has delivered unexpected change in the Arab World. Human Rights advocates must be alert on actions mostly regulatory, that governments are likely to take, and which will infringe on people’s rights to express themselves freely online.

In his report on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression to the third committee of the UN General Assembly in October 2011, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression outlines the types of expression that States are exceptionally required to prohibit under international law. Given the ongoing debate regarding regulation of content on the Internet, he discusses impermissible restrictions.

a) Why ICT policy is in critical need of attention in Africa

This is an emerging field which is dynamic and complex. The Internet has become a contested and nationalized space and new forms of control are posing new challenges.Governments have seen its transformative nature and are stepping up attempts to control it. Some governments like Egypt did respond by shutting it down to curb criticism from citizens, and some have removed application platforms e.g. face book and twitter. As such some governments are willing to trade internet freedom for security or anti terrorism measures.

Repressive regimes are becoming more intelligent and better resourced in dealing with human rights on the internet by moving controls to technology e.g. through malware, surveillance of users, and applying pressure on intermediaries to take down sites.

The Internet allows marginalized groups and those with disabilities to engage more actively in social and public life for example by use of screen readers for those who have a sight disability. It is an integrated space and all policies (even those that have no direct impact on human rights) contribute to new ways of communicating that empowers people.

It is therefore important when formulating policies to pay attention to those that have a direct impact on human rights and even those whose impact is less. Further, there is need to have a sustained policy intervention and develop a model of governance, as well as advocate for an open and accessible Internet.

b) Most important areas to intervene in the near future

Freedom and protection of online expression is a human rights issue. As such some important areas for future intervention include:
• Access and infrastructure: accessibility to technologies in particular women, the poor and for those in rural areas where businesses will not invest since it does not make economic sense. It is important to encourage the private sector to invest in infrastructure and low technologies.
• Costs: those who cannot afford the Internet will continue to be marginalized. Need for affordable Internet for all.
• Protection of privacy: violations of privacy include spying on emails and websites visited. All citizens including whistle blowers require privacy.
• Surveillance for example the intention to spy on emails.
• Censorship (more and more being built into software and hardware).
• Cyber security in particular to protect children.

c) How I see the relationship between human rights and the internet
• Promotion of human rights includes freedom of expression, association and democratic participation. This was given cognizance in 2011 by the Freedom of Expression special rappoteur’s statement whose overarching theme was the right to freedom of opinion and expression expressed through the internet.
• Therefore, the Internet is the new space and platform for expression using social networking, emails and list serves to communicate.
• It empowers the marginalized who do not find spaces in conventional spaces to organize and promote their own interests.
• Creates a public voice through the sheer numbers that are able to express themselves without fear.
• Content on human rights can be created locally and distributed globally. This creates a wide range of coverage both offline and online. Then Internet therefore allows for more people to express solidarity with those affected by an issue.
• The Internet allows for documentation of human rights activities, wide distribution of information in an affordable manner. This allows for possibilities for campaigns and advocacy on issues of concern.
• The Internet can and has built communities to call for legislation and help mobilize human rights groups to support the call for legislation.
• In sum, the Internet has emerged as a platform for collaboration and organization of critical human rights issue.