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Photo: Flickr user Will Scullin (CC BY 2.0)

Photo: Flickr user Will Scullin (CC BY 2.0)

The UN delivers a blueprint for online rights. Now, will countries take action?

Web Foundation · July 1, 2016

Today, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) passed a landmark resolution. Exceptional in its scope and ambition, the resolution recognises that closing the digital divide, expanding access to information and protecting online rights (the three pillars of our work here at the Web Foundation) are all equally critical to realise the potential of the Internet to accelerate development and advance human rights. The resolution also affirms, as our founder Tim Berners-Lee has insisted, that all Internet-related policies even those addressing sensitive issues such as security — should be subject to transparent, democratic and inclusive processes and institutions.

We’ve waded through the technical language so you don’t have to. Here are some of the highlights of this important document.

  • The artificial separation between promoting universal Internet access and protecting online human rights is finally abolished. Building on the pathbreaking work done by former UN Special Rapporteur Frank LaRue, the resolution leaves no room for doubt: policies to expand access must be part of a comprehensive human rights-based approach, and vice versa.
  • Gender inequality online is not only acknowledged but prioritised and high time too (see our research on the shocking extent of the gender digital divide). The resolution calls on all States to bridge this divide. It also tasks the High Commissioner with preparing a report for the HRC on how this should be done, which guarantees the issue will receive further attention from the HRC.
  • “The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. It’s not the first time the UN has said this in a resolution, but this reiteration doesn’t leave any room for debate. Privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of association and many more must apply on the Web.
  • National security is no excuse to violate basic rights. A favourite argument for secret mass surveillance programmes (and increasingly, for Internet shutdowns and social media censorship) is that these measures are necessary to protect national security. But today’s resolution leaves no room for doubt. It instructs States to respect their international human rights obligations in addressing security concerns, and to act through “democratic, transparent institutions, based on the rule of law, in a way that ensures freedom andsecurity on the internet” (italics ours).
  • Internet shutdowns — an increasingly common issue — are deemed unacceptable. This year alone, we’ve seen governments in Uganda, India, Vietnam and many other countries shut down part or all of the Internet. There are unusually harsh words for the usually cautious UN here these measures are “unequivocally condemned” and countries are told to stop this practice.
  • Governments are challenged to adopt a comprehensive set of policies to achieve universal access and the enjoyment of human rights on and through the Internet and to fully and transparently involve civil society and other stakeholders in developing such policies. One example of such a process would be a crowd-sourced national bill of rights for the Internet, as our Web We Want campaign has helped to promote and as our partners have been advocating in countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, the Philippines, Italy and the UK.

The fly in the ointment? HRC resolutions aren’t binding, and even among many of the countries that sponsored the resolution, current practice is a long way from the aspirations expressed here. Our research shows, for example, that globally, large majorities of women and poor are priced out of Internet access; that less than 10% of vital public sector data is freely available online; and that almost no countries have established democratic and transparent checks on state spying on Internet usersSome of the sponsors of today’s resolution in Geneva are even in the process of adopting new laws back home that would seem to blatantly contradict the spirit of the resolution, such as the IP Bill currently being rushed through the UK Parliament

The strength of the new HRC commitments is partly a result of determined civil society advocacy led by the great team at Article 19 and supported by many others, including us. Take a moment to celebrate the achievement. And then take a deep breath, and start planning how we can work together to ensure this isn’t just a paper victory by holding our lawmakers, courts and leaders accountable for living up to these critical commitments.


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