By Gabriella Razzano
On the 12th of August ODAC joined the Association of Progressive Communications and others to discuss access to content and connectivity in Africa.
This followed from the detailed submissions ODAC had made in response to an early draft of the African Declaration on Internet Freedom of Rights. And those discussions were strongly influenced by Frank La Rue’s seminal report delivered to the Human Rights Council in 2011 that explored in some detail the different valuable influences the internet has in the promotion of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. When the piece came out, it sparked a great debate on “internet as a human right”.
And that debate continued when we met in Johannesburg. And I think it is vital we continue to explore it; not just to be pedantic about how we talk about rights – but because I do not think the human rights sector is being rigorous enough when we consider the internet as some form of an alien realm.
In his piece La Rue stated:
“…the framework of international human rights law remains relevant today and equally applicable to new communication technologies such as the Internet.”
While I have a lot of strong feelings on the topic, the main thing I want to discuss in brief here is why we shouldn’t talk about the internet as some form of ‘new problem’ that may need a ‘new right’; at least not today. My concerns here are practical, rather than theoretical.
1. It’s already here; we need to deal with it.
We have comprehensive doctrine on the application of human rights. And the internet is here to stay. We need to deal with it in courtrooms; and trying to reinvent rights discourse – instead of relying on established principles – will only confuse things.
And outside of courtrooms, what do we gain by trying to confuse our tried and tested language? Access to information activists should speak about the internet for their work. So should housing activists. So should gender activists. We may as well use the language we already know how to use; and at the same time acknowledge, vitally, that it is a conversation we should all be having.
2. It’s not just about access.
Equal access to internet is obviously a concern. But when the internet has been embodied in a specific constitutional instrument, such as in France, Costa Rica or Estonia, it is done so only in consideration of access to infrastructure.
La Rue noted that the internet also concerns the right of access to content. Once we are online, how we are online becomes a matter whether of protection too. How can we exercise free expression when given restricted access to Twitter, for example? Even this is a limited understanding of the importance of the internet for human rights – and that’s because rights documents are instruments largely of vertical application. Decisions, for example, that relate to the civil relationship on copyright and intellectual property may also be hugely impactful on actual rights online – how would a standalone right fully appreciate this?
3. Rights discourse has moved on – and we’ve run out of flag colours.
Rights discourse initially followed an historical progression through first, second and third generation rights. Karel Vasak linked these rights (civil political, socio-economic and collective, respectively) to the French revolutionary principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. But while these forms of jurisprudential insights into rights may still help in academic environments, the recognition of the interdependence of all rights has long moved us on from a linear understanding.
This is practical, but it is also an acknowledgement of not prioritising rights in any order, which may not allow for considered application in different country contexts. We shouldn’t be working in ‘rights’ silos – not just because it is ineffective, but because threats to the internet may come from areas and perspectives we are not focused on. Regulations relating to telecommunications, mass surveillance, court judgments on hosts and search engine responsibilities; these are potential threats not only to the internet, and the internet as a space, but a host of other fundamental human rights we should be speaking to.
In the end though, I agree that the internet is special. I believe it should be warranted a special degree of freedom that is also difficult to articulate within standard rights discourses. But I am not trying to resolve how to deal with that now. Instead, I want to note that the internet has become integrated into our way of life. It is not an alien that needs to be seen as separate; it instead is embedded into how we live and needs to be talked about in a language that we all understand. It has advantages and disadvantages, but it is always worth remembering that the disadvantages mimic those we see already: preferential and unequal access, abuse by the powerful, and a lack of full empathy for the vulnerable.
Let’s start leveraging the internet for the advancement of all human rights, and guarding its sanctity as zealously as we would guard any fundamental human right; even if we don’t call it one.