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Human Rights 27 June 2013

Freedom, security and trust

Nicolas Seidler
By Nicolas SeidlerFormer Senior Policy Advisor

On May 31st, just a few days before revelations around the PRISM/NSA affair became public, the Internet Society helped organize a discussion at the UN’s Human Rights Council focused on Internet freedom, security and development (see video highlights below). Topics that would eventually gain mainstream prominence in the days to follow. 

The panel, led by Sweden’s mission to the U.N. in Geneva and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had the presence of representatives from Brazil, Nigeria, Tunisia, Turkey, the United States and other countries with a special interest on the topic.

This same group led the development of the Human Rights Council “Internet Resolution” 20/8 (adopted in August 2012), which re-emphasizes that fundamental rights in the offline world are just as applicable online. An obvious principle, which has often been overlooked in the numerous examples of restriction to freedom of expression or threats to users’ privacy in the digital world.

Here is a brief summary of the session:.

Trust: the Internet’s foundational stone

Trust and accountability issues and their relation to security and law enforcement on the Internet were on the spotlight throughout most of the debate. There is no doubt that the Internet’s decentralized, open and end-to-end architecture has been a tremendous empowering factor for individuals at the edges of the network, enabling them to share information and to innovate in unexpected ways.

However, the session also highlighted the fact that nodes, vital to route traffic through the network, can be used or misused by private companies, governments or other users. Some speakers made the point that while we need trust for the Internet to meet its full potential (e.g. to engage in online commercial transactions or for social participation), in some cases, a certain amount of healthy and constructive distrust towards governments and companies can also be beneficial to safeguard societal checks and balances.

Strengthening the collaborative Internet governance model

In the field of Internet governance, building trust resonates with the multistakeholder approach to Internet policy development. This concept is focused on giving everyone a voice by providing a framework able to take into account the expertise and interests of different people and communities. As one panelist underlined, an important step towards building trust, is the ability to listen and respect different opinions.

Is security and the free flow of information compatible? Can they actually reinforce each other?

One of the underlying objectives of the session was to challenge the notion that there has to be a trade-off between security and freedom of expression, privacy or economic development.

Crowdsourced early warning systems, such as Ushahidi provide an illustration that it is possible to have all of these elements together. The platform was created amidst the unrest and violence in the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 disputed presidential election. It collected eyewitness reports of violence via email or text-message and mapped this data using Google Maps. Ushahidi was also used in other scenarios, such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, providing vital field information to humanitarian aid and emergency relief workers for targeted emergency responses.

We certainly cannot draw any conclusions from one example, but this provides a hint that Internet empowered individuals can contribute to greater security of a community. It also provides a counterpoint to the perception of crowds and social media as factors of disruption.

There are many other close relationships between security, free expression and development.

As examples we can cite: the freedom to share information and ideas as essential for innovation and development of groundbreaking new products and services (including privacy and security tools for end-users) or the fact that a secured and trusted Internet is essential for many high value online transactions (e.g. banking, social media).

A greater understanding of these different relationships and interdependencies can play an important role in further informing and anticipating the future dynamics of the Open Internet and its governance.

Session highlights

The video below shows highlights from the discussion:

Link to transcript of video

Watch the full session

About the Human Rights Council panel: Internet freedom, security and development

Organized by Sweden, with the support of the Internet Society, the “Internet freedom, development and security” debate took place in Geneva on 31 May, 2013 under the umbrella of the UN Human Rights Council. The session was convened by Brazil, Nigeria, Tunisia, Turkey, the United States and Sweden, a core group of countries within the Council with a particular focus on fostering discussions around the Internet and Human Rights.

This group had led the development of a Resolution that became the Human Rights Council “Internet Resolution” 20/8 (adopted in August 2012). The Internet Society was an active participant in the drafting of the Resolution and successfully advocated for recognition of the Internet’s openness as one of the key driving forces for economic and social development in the text.

The May 2013 session was a follow-up to this Resolution, exploring more concretely the challenge of combining development aspirations, security objectives, and the protection and promotion of human rights on the Internet.

I had the pleasure to share the Internet Society’s views on this panel, which included the following speakers:

Moderator: Stephen Sackur, Journalist, Presenter HARDtalk at BBC World News.


  • Olof Ehrenkrona, Ambassador, Senior Political Advisor to the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt
  • Anita Gurumurthy, Executive Director, IT for Change, India
  • Guy Berger, Director: Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, UNESCO
  • Nicolas Seidler, Policy Advisor, Internet Society, Internet Society
  • Everton Lucero, Stakeholder Engagement Management, ICANN
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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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