The Internet’s relationship with human rights can tentatively be traced back to the very foundations of this global network, with the creation of the Internet Protocol suite (TCP/IP) some 40 years ago.
Although the Internet’s original architects did not intentionally conceive the Internet as a tool to advance human rights, the principles they built into its design embody the ideals of freedom of expression; one could almost read Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the freedom to share, receive and impart information and ideas across frontiers) as a definition of the Internet, even though it was written a quarter of a century before the invention of the Internet Protocol (see Markus Kummer’s Human Rights Council statement).
December 10th marks traditional celebrations for Human Rights Day. This year the focus will be on the 20th Anniversary of the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, highlighting key human rights achievements of the past two decades.
This is also a great opportunity to look back at key Internet developments, in the Internet’s short history, that have impacted the exercise of fundamental rights in a networked world.
Open standards to limitless innovation
On the technological side, open Internet standards have provided the building blocks for the network’s generative nature, unlocking the limitless potential of decentralised innovation and creativity in new applications and services.
Building upon this foundation, new technologies and applications are continuously emerging that impact people’s basic freedoms, such as access to and sharing of information (e.g. emails, VoIP, instant chat, blogs), freedom of peaceful association (e.g. social networks, forums) or access to knowledge and cultural content (e.g. Wikipedia).
But these achievements would be rather meaningless if the Internet’s benefits were restricted to a sub-set of people. Fortunately, much progress has taken place in the past few years to expand Internet access around the world. The recently launched 2013 Web Index indicates that “the number of internet users worldwide has more than doubled since WSIS [World Summit on the Information Society], from 16 percent of the global population in 2005 to 39 percent in 2013″.
Taking the example of Africa, starting with the single SEACOM cable connecting West Africa in 1999, there are now 13 major cable connecting Sub-saharan and Mediterranean Africa. Most of them have gone online in the past three years. This has been a major development for Internet access in Africa, supported, among other elements, by the increasing use of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) to optimize traffic and foster more efficient and cheaper connections.
Challenges for the future
As great as the achievements are, many challenges remain. The greater part of the world still has no access to the Internet. According to A4AI’s “Affordability Index”, for those living on less than US$2/day, entry-level broadband costs an average of 40% of monthly income, and in many countries this figure exceeds 80% or 100%. As a consequence, billions cannot afford to connect to the network, therefore limiting the economic and social that access could promote. The Internet Society is working with partners around the globe to increase Internet infrastructure through its development work.
The story doesn’t end there, unfortunately. Openness can be double-edged: the same technology that is used to foster free expression can also be used to repress it. Suspension of Internet access, delaying traffic, bandwidth capping, filtering of websites and/or of their content, surveillance of online activities and invasion of privacy are but few of the measures which threaten both the Internet’s functionality and its ability to promote the exercise of fundamental rights online.
For example, the 2013 Web Index found that 94% of countries in its sample survey do not meet best practice standards for checks and balances on government interception of electronic communications. Adequately meeting users’ expectations of privacy on the Internet will remain a key challenge going forward.
Keep the Internet strong
The Internet is basically what we make of it: it reflects our society, with its bright and darker aspects. An Internet which is open and collaborative is the starting point to make it stronger as a platform for human rights.
It is our collective responsibility – users, governments, engineers, companies – to reduce the Internet’s downsides and to optimise it as a positive force in our economic activities, social interactions and political participation.
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