Reflecting on Human Rights and the Internet Governance Forum-USA

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For years, the United States has stood as the global role model for digital rights, freedom of expression online, and access to knowledge. But since the Edward Snowden revelations of 2013, a number of concerned observers have warned that US leadership in the realm of digital rights and freedom is waning. With these setbacks in the U.S.’s reputation either by NGOs, individuals, or the international community, does that mean the US can’t reestablish its leadership role in defending human rights online? This question was at the heart of the Internet Governance Forum USA (IGF-USA) panel on Human Rights in Internet Governance, which PK’s Carolina Rossini moderated on July 16 here in Washington.

IGF-USA is one of the many regional chapters of the global Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which is the annual international multistakeholder forum on public policy issues related to the internet and internet governance. Originally developed by the UN, the IGF doesn’t have decision-making powers, but it is the central forum where stakeholders from around the world get together to set the tone on core policy issues. In the past few years, strengthening the legitimacy of the IGF has been a major topic of global discussion.

Now, back to the regional IGFs. The role and influence of the various regional forums varies from region to region, but one of the goals of this year’s IGF-USA (other than providing an all day dialogue between sectors that rarely meet) was to help clarify the ideas and values of US stakeholders going in to the next IGF, which is being held in early September in Istanbul.

The array of panelists during the human rights panel, including Deborah Brown (Association for Progressive Communications), Scott Busby (U.S. Department of State), Alberto Cerda (SJD Georgetown), Avri Doria, and Ben Blink (Google), tackled the difficult question of the US’s role model position in human rights online. There was common consensus among the group that the Snowden revelations have crushed US legitimacy as a predominant leader for human rights online and has set an uncomfortable feeling of mistrust in the already delicate internet governance geopolitics. Scott Busby, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, provided the crowd great details on positive efforts to reestablish some of that trust, including the recent Obama initiative to review NSA activities and blur the line between US-persons and non-US persons, conceding similar (but not the same) recognition for privacy rights. Ben Blink, Senior Policy Analyst at Google, suggested that the U.S. can and should build best practices and develop policies that allow companies to share with their users what information the government has requested.

Besides addressing the U.S. and human rights online, Carolina brought up the rising stars in the internet governance debate, including Brazil, Kenya, the Netherlands, and Sweden and their newly developed leadership role in digital rights. At this point in the dialogue, the consensus that seemed to have emerged was that there is no one country that can truly provide a solution that will be appropriate in every country’s reality. Instead, policy makers and stakeholders around the world should adopt the pieces of policy and legislation that are most appropriate for their local contexts. And they should do all this without losing the view of the broader framework - the application and enforcement of human rights online.

In a third interesting perspective during the panel, Avri Doria, an independent internet consultant and technologist, and Alberto Cerda, a tenured assistant professor in law and technology at the University of Chile School of Law and SJD candidate at Georgetown University, promoted the importance of other human rights principles in digital rights. Beyond freedom of speech and the right to privacy, Doria reminded us of the right of association (a right often overlooked when discussing digital rights), while Cerda pointed to the need of clear net neutrality rules as a core enabler for exercising freedom of expression.  The NetMundial outcome document and follow-up initiatives such as the Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanisms were also mentioned as a potential path forward for securing and fostering human rights online.

While one may expect that outside the human rights in internet governance panel, human rights discussions would be overwhelmed with debates on the more technical and political aspects of internet governance, human rights principles were mentioned in almost every single panel, plenary, and remark during the full day conference. Whether it was various panelists debating net neutrality principles, technology experts talking about ways to protect the right to privacy, or the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski discussing the State Department funded anonymity network Tor, it was clear that human rights principles are at the core of internet governance discussions and will be a priority at the IGF in Istanbul.

You can watch Carolina's panel and more here.

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