Inside the Information Society: Connecting ICTs to economic, social and cultural rights

Each week, David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog looks at the impact of ICTs and the Internet on economic, social and cultural rights.

Debates about rights and the Internet have focused mostly on civil and political rights, especially privacy and freedom of expression. But, as I wrote in last week’s blog, they are only part of the international rights regime. This week I’ll look at the impact of ICTs and the Internet on economic, social and cultural rights (ESC rights) – the focus of an intervention by APC at the UN Human Rights Council when it met last month.

What are economic, social and cultural rights?

They’re set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which was agreed in 1966 at the same time as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Like the ICCPR, the ICESCR gives international legal status to rights which were first described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), though it’s not been ratified by quite so many countries. (The United States, for one, has not.)

What’s included in it? A range of rights, including national self-determination; the rights to work and to ‘just and favourable conditions of work’; trades union rights; protection for the family (which is described as ‘the natural and fundamental unit of society’); and rights to social security, to an ‘adequate standard of living’, to freedom from hunger, to health, to education and to ‘take part in cultural life and enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.’

These differ from the civil and political rights in the ICCPR in a couple of important ways. Civil and political rights are, for the most part, rights which people can enjoy as individuals. Most rights in the ICESCR relate to broad communities.

Civil and political rights can mostly be achieved through legislation which can have immediate effect. Many economic, social and cultural rights require long-term investment by governments and strong institutional frameworks. For that reason, the Covenant recognises that they can only be achieved over time, by what is called ‘progressive realisation’.

How do ICTs affect them?

ICTs affect these rights because ICTs play an increasingly important part in every aspect of economic, social and cultural life. They affect them more each year because ICTs become more pervasive and more significant each year. And their effect on rights can be both positive and negative.

ICTs and the Internet offer opportunities to achieve economic, social and cultural rights in ways that were not possible before. For example, they enable easier access to information on areas of rights within the Covenant such as health, education and food production. Improved access to information can be critical to achieving both ESC rights, as well as to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which have now been agreed. The link between these is important, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights has compiled a detailed matrix juxtaposing rights and SDGs.

But ICTs and the Internet can also threaten economic, social and cultural rights. There is growing concern about their impact, for example, on employment rights (the subject of a future post) and social security. While ICTs can support achievement of economic, social and cultural rights, these may also need new types of protection.

The right to take part in cultural life

For many people, it’s Article 15 of the ICESCR that’s most affected by the Information Society. That has three clauses, and I’ll take each in turn.

Its first clause asserts the right ‘to take part in cultural life.’ ‘Cultural life’ itself is not defined in the Covenant, and there’s scope for different interpretations. Does it refer to participation in national cultural activities? Does it refer to diverse cultures within countries, including ethnic, religious and sexual minorities? Remember too that, like the ICCPR, rights in this Covenant are subject to ‘such limitations as are determined by law,’ though ‘only in so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society.’

The second clause asserts the right ‘to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.’ Those who want to find a right of access to ICTs and Internet in the rights regime can see this as a starting point. Though access isn’t essential for people to benefit from what ICTs and Internet contribute to society, excluding people – individuals or communities – from access could be thought to breach this right.

The third clause asserts ‘protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which [someone] is the author.’ This gives intellectual property rights their roots within the international rights regime.

So what should we be doing?

I’d suggest four things, as the basis for APC’s campaign and work by others.

First, we should pay more attention to economic, social and cultural rights. Too often, when ICT advocates refer to rights, they’ve seemed like poor relations. The more important the Internet becomes to economy, society and culture, the more important it become to economic, social and cultural rights; and vice versa. Governments and other stakeholders should recognise this, and recognise that there are risks as well as benefits.

Second, we should relate ESC rights more closely to the SDGs. NGOs have often looked towards a rights-based approach to development. While development should not be seen exclusively that way, it adds moral force to development and draws particular attention to equality. The Danish matrix is an important resource here.

Third, we should coordinate our thinking about rights between the core covenants (the ICCPR and ICESPR), and indeed with other rights instruments such as those concerned with the rights of women and of children.

The right ‘to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications’ in the ICESCR surely includes the benefits of access to networks and services which underpin the Internet. Access to networks and services requires them to be geographically pervasive and affordable, and that people can develop the capabilities to use them.

Likewise, the right ‘to receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds’ in the ICCPR underpins people’s ability to use resources which the Internet can make available – to improve the exercise of communal rights to health and education, social security and quality of life which are included in the ESCR Covenant.

And lastly, we should recognise the role of governments in achieving rights. A lot of discussion about ICTs and civil and political rights has been about preventing governments abusing rights. But, the rights regime is clear, implementing rights requires positive action by governments to enable rights as well as exercising restraint where they’re concerned. This is especially true of economic, social and cultural rights which require progressive realisation through public policy and investment. Rights activists should work with governments to achieve this.

The UN’s Department for Economic and Social Affairs has organised a retreat this month to explore how the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) should develop. In next week’s blog, I’ll set out my suggestions.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter.
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