NetHui 2011 - Session 5 - Human rights and the Internet

posted 28 Jun 2011, 22:23 by James Williamson   [ updated 29 Jun 2011, 05:19 ]

Human rights and the internet


  • Not computers that have rights, but people who use computers

  • Basic rights are in Bill of Rights Act – freedom of expression, freedom of association etc

  • Current issues – denial of service attacks, content filtering, terminating internet access as a penalty for breaching copyright etc. Liability of internet providers (both ISPs, phone providers, google, facebook, twitter etc). Nature and enforceability of court orders relating to online activity.

  • Old fashioned denial of service attack in "meatspace" required thousands of protesters physically blockading buildings etc, now days a single hacker running a botnet can shut down major government and corporate websites in minutes.

  • Is a denial of service attack on a website a valid and legitimate form of protest? Is it less legitimate because one person can have the same impact that would have previously required large groups? What if the attack is carried out by a large group who are both aggrieved and internet-savvy?

  • Filtering of child porn content is generally not very controversial in any country. However when McDonalds decided to filter out any homosexual content from their free wifi networks this sparked massive controversy - contrast between accepted and unacceptable deviation from the norm of sexual preference.

  • Unintended consequences – e.g. women unable to find information about breast cancer due to "breast" being a blocked word.

  • Faith based filtering – Pakistan blocks around 12,000 websites that host content that is considered blasphemous to Islam, however on examination many of these are political content and blasphemy laws are just being used as an excuse to block them.

  • Could internet shutdown happen here like it did in Egypt? Absolutely it could, NZ government has the same powers but just chooses not to exercise them so far. Chinese government is much more active, and for instance can remotely shut down mobile account if you send a text message containing a blacklisted word.

  • Internet brings both new spaces for rights and freedoms that did not exist before, but also bring new restrictions and new ways for rights to be infringed. Competing rights must be balanced; e.g. freedom of expression vs right to silence.

  • What do human rights online mean? Right to communicate freely with people who share the same political views, safeguards against oppression.

  • Should access to the internet be a human right? Maybe, but surely it ranks below other services like electricity (which is something of a prerequisite for internet access!) Internet access is important, but argument that to compare it to basic human rights like right to food, shelter, freedom from arbitrary detention and torture, detracts from the importance of these more basic rights. On the other hand, people who can't read or write still have the right to vote and have special provision made for them. Also in remote parts of third world nations it is not uncommon that communities who are self reliant in water, food, shelter etc and do not have guaranteed access to these, will nevertheless have access to the internet via mobile devices charged using solar panels or windmill power, and for these communities internet access is one of the only benefits that the modern world makes available to them.

  • How does the internet protect or promote your rights, and how does it make them easier to repress? The "right to be forgotten" is increasingly becoming important online, especially with sites like facebook storing permanent records of information people may not have wanted posted online in the first place.

  • The existence of a right in itself is nothing, unless there is a community that supports the access to those rights. Saying there is a right to internet access does not mean there is a positive obligation on service providers to give internet access to people who are unable to pay for it. In Finland where internet access is a human right under law, this is interpreted as meaning anyone who wants access to the internet should be able to get it, but this does not mean there is a right to internet at home without paying for it, so long as there is free internet available at the library.

  • What forums can these rights and freedoms be debated in other than in the relatively closed environment of Parliament? Most human rights are born out of populist social movements, but online movements which are scattered across the world and debated primarily on online forums only, are much less visible than thousands of protesters camped outside Parliament.

  • Most of the people who have the power to change the rules, still often lack the digital literacy to understand the issues and why they are important – "how does file sharing affect me when I don't download anything"

  • Should telcos be allowed to traffic shape by slowing down or speeding up data depending on whether people have paid extra to make their site load faster, or if the data is "undesirable" in nature, like torrent traffic.

  • No concept of access to the telephone being a human right, or the right to go on TV to present your views. So what makes internet different, just because so much is done online now days. Note that intention of the laws guaranteeing free local calls in NZ was to ensure that the public had access to telephones, even though this was not enshrined as a human right.

  • Notion that because frequency spectrums are a public resource, there should be some degree of public access to broadcast mediums, and the internet is essentially another broadcast medium like radio or TV - albeit with a lower barrier to entry.

  • Rights always go with responsibilities – so what are the fundamental responsibilities online?

  • Access to internet can be framed in terms of accepted human rights, primarily freedom of expression and freedom of association, so question may be not so much whether internet access is a human right, but whether it is an aspect of existing rights. In relation to freedom of expression the human rights framework was written with the intention that it would apply to new types of expression and advances in technology, which implies that having online content blocked or taken down would be a breach of freedom of expression already.

  • Debate needed not so much about whether new rights are needed, but how the existing rights apply to the new situations that now exist.

  • Internet is a privately owned public space, so any effective regime will have to involve some kind of public-private partnership.

  • Access to the internet by disabled people is an increasing issue in this area, given that much online content is not readily accessible to people who are visually impaired for instance.

  • Human rights can be subject to limitations where needed, but these must be for appropriate reasons and only as small a limitation as possible – national security is commonly used in western countries as an excuse as this is difficult to argue with, but more controversial is when rights are limited to protect religious sensitivities or commercial interests.

Comments