Human Rights 7 December 2012

The Internet and the Right to Participate in Public Life: Amplifying Voices

By Nicolas SeidlerFormer Senior Policy Advisor

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

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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