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On 10 December 2012, the world will celebrate Human Rights Day. This year’s theme, as defined by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), will be “inclusion and the right to participate in public life”. People across the globe will be invited to re-affirm the right to voice their opinion and to take part in public discourse and decision-making processes.

The right of every citizen to participate in public affairs, to vote and to be elected, and to have equal access to public services, is established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and legally guaranteed and protected under article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). According to the ICCPR, which sets legally binding obligations upon 167 States, the right to participation in the conduct of public affairs applies to “every citizen without exception”.

In just a few years, the Internet has emerged as a major platform for communication and expression, amplifying the voices of more than two billion people across the world. Blogs, wikis and other types of networking and participatory platforms have emerged as common tools for people to make their voices heard online and offline, allowing individuals with common interests to share ideas, collaborate or coordinate activities. For those who are fortunate to access it, the open and global network has offered an unprecedented potential for greater inclusion in public matters and a platform for individuals to influence the decisions that shape their communities.

The role played by the Internet in the social and political uprisings in North Africa and Middle East, known as the Arab Spring, has been much discussed already. The network has helped people share their desires for change, exchange ideas and opinions across border and also extended the reach of their voices on a global scale.

While discussions on the Internet and human rights have mostly focused on issues related to freedom of expression and opinion, or freedom of assembly and association, participation rights should not be overlooked as they resonate strongly with the generative nature of the Internet and its design.

At the core of the Internet lies its fundamental architecture – open, decentralized, distributed and end-to-end – which empowers users on the margins of the network. The open Internet model means that anyone can build upon the work of those that went before them; this generative nature enables innovation at the edges, without the need to ask for permission at the center.

The open Internet standards building process, such as that undertaken by such bodies as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), is a good example of the bottom-up and participatory nature of the Internet. This process is open to everyone, meaning that users define what the Internet is and what it will become. Standards are free and accessible to everyone. If the Internet becomes a closed platform, then users will not be able to contribute and participate to its evolution – technically, normatively or even socially.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that people seem to have greater expectations and sense of ownership regarding policies which could affect their ability to use the network. Numerous physical and virtual protests against the adoption of the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA), but also in the case of the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), demonstrated that citizens and Internet users are asking for more transparency and inclusion in policies that might affect their online freedoms.

In a similar vein, many civil society organizations - including non-Internet focused NGOs - have voiced their concerns over the potential impact that governmental decisions that could be taken at the currently held ITU World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), could have on people’s freedoms in the online environment.

In some parts of the world, Governments have started paying attention to ways of fostering enhanced participation by their citizens in public affairs, through the use of emerging online participation tools and practices such as eVoting, Open Government Data initiatives, and other eGovernment services. It is important that Governments make use of the opportunities offered by the Internet and ICTs to encourage their citizens to join the debate, offer their ideas and eventually contribute to more legitimate and sustainable policies. Transparency of government actions and decisions is paramount to ensure appropriate accountability towards citizens.

One of the key contemporary challenges for inclusion concerns access and participation by persons with disabilities, such as hearing or visual impairments. Internet technologies have the potential to give persons with disabilities the means to live within the global community on a more equitable and inclusive basis in a manner that previously was not possible. For example, W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are increasingly mandated by governments and used by industry to make websites more accessible for people with disabilities. Beyond technical accessibility, it is also important to encourage more accessible forms of work for persons with disabilities, e.g. through consideration of limitations and exceptions of copyright for visually impaired persons and persons with print disabilities, which are currently being deliberated by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

The other side of inclusion is exclusion. We should consider digital exclusion or barriers to Internet access as potentially impeding the ability to be fully informed and participate in public life. Fostering literacy should be a key objective to ensure that citizens are fully able to participate in public life.  In this regard, libraries and community access points can, and have played an important role in providing public access to the Internet and meeting the community’s need for digital literacy and inclusion.

Ultimately, one of the greatest benefits of the Internet is its potential to ensure that all citizens of the world have the same opportunities to participate in public life. As we celebrate Human Rights Day on December 10, let’s seize this moment to remember the opportunities and challenges raised by the Internet for the ability of all stakeholders to have their voices heard.

Nicolas Seidler, Policy Advisor, Internet Society
 

Comments

A lot needs to be done to ensure that the Internet remains open for all of society. Having maintained an open and free web space for artists and their audience for more than 12 years we find it increasingly difficult to imagine how we can keep it open for another 12 months. Between the expense and the demand, the lack of official support and the clear dominance of commercial platforms the Internet is falling rapidly to another agenda. http://www.NewIrishArt.com

Internet is for everyone ! The end to end nature of the network and the freedom to share ideas and concept is a mean to have ANY voice potentially heard. This is my voice in support to my rights and to the rights of the others in the world. Share ideas opinions cultures is a foundamental step in share even our rights globally!

The Openness nature of the Internet has today transformed it into a social, economic and political tool. Everyone now use the Internet to carry out all forms of tasks. When it comes to communication, the Internet has made the human lives easier. You can send an e-mail and you are certain the message will reach the recipient. Not only the recipient finding himself /herself in the other part of your country but the recipient can be located in the other part of the continent. The associated cost, coupled with the speed of the transmitted message will be reduced drastically. Not only that but if you have a product or a service to market, your ability to create a website for the entity or the organization will certainly make your task easier. So many customers will be brought on board to patronize in the products and services due to the created website. In the end the associated marketing cost and speed will also be reduced drastically. Again the use of the web of the Internet for voting , let us consider the convenience in terms of the associated cost and also speed, life is made easier and in the end the associated accuracy will be better than the manual. The list can go on and on. Ghana just finished its election using the manual system and there were a lot of complaints associated with it. Based on the above enumerated benefits of the Internet, I must say the Internet which started as a small scientific tool in the mid 1970 is today developed into an innovative system due to its openness.

In India, people are arrested for voicing their opinion on Internet or otherwise. The Indian government itself supports such barbaric acts. Human Rights is an alien concept for most of the Indians. We need International Internet Community to Help Us.

Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights 1950 secures to everyone within the European jurisdiction (or at least the signatories to the Convention), the right to freedom of expression, however this is qualifiable: Actions cannot violate health, morals, reputation or rights of others, law or privacy. In addition Article 8 which secures the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence, balances the Article 10 right. In the UK the development of a privacy law and now the new offences in relation to stalking at section 111 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which adds a new section 2A to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the latter statute covering both civil and criminal harassment, gives the victims of those who either engage in deviant behaviour or exercise their Article 10 right irresponsibly further protection. Peter Adediran UK Solicitor http://www.pailsolicitors.co.uk/news/

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