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Internet Governance 8 November 2012

Internet and human rights

If you take just a quick look at the IGF 2012 schedule, you will see a very large number of workshops which address the issue of human rights and the Internet. Some of these workshops focus on the general debate about the exercise of human rights on the Internet, while others are intended to analyse more in depth particular human rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom to share privacy, data protection.

But this workshop have in common one key element: the acknowledgement of the fact the same human rights which are recognised in the real/offline world, should be recognised in the online environment as well. The Internet has evolved as a communication tool which empowers people and allows them to exercise these rights in new ways. The Internet is therefore viewed as an opportunity, as a mean of exercising human rights. People in different parts of the world have the possibility to communicate via the Internet, to exchange ideas, to express their views on different issues, to engage in and to become part of different forms of organisation (through the so-called “e-participation”). By doing this, they are actually exercising fundamental human rights such as the freedom of expression, freedom to share and the freedom of association, as an example.

However, there are cases when human rights and violated and the exercise of fundamental freedoms through the Internet is restricted, from various reason, by various actors. Online surverillance impacts the privacy and data protection of Internet users. Content blocking restricts freedom of expression and freedom to share and impart information.

In this context, there is one question which is raised more and more often: is the Internet/access to Internet a human right in itself? Or should it be recognised as such?

Some say that recognising access to Internet as a basic human right and including it in national constitutions and/or international conventions would determine or somehow force governments to make sure that their citizens are able to access the Internet, not only from the point of view of access to physical infrastructures, but also with regard to access to an open and neutral Internet, free from any form of censorhip, surveillance, blocking and filtering activities.

But other argue the validity of this argument: States constitutions and international conventions and treaties recognise fundamental human rights and freedoms. But has this fact prevented states from restricting such rights and freedoms? Are these rights fully exercised in all states that have such constitutions or which have adhered to such international instruments? Would it be different in the case of the Internet? If the Internet is recognised as a human right, will that prevent countries from interfering with the free flow of information?

If not, then what is to gain by declaring the Internet as a human right?

If yes, how do we make this happen?

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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