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Paths of Glory: Privacy Still Matters

Roy Balleste

The world has changed dramatically for the better over the last 15 years, mainly due to the commercialization of the Internet. That is what I would like to believe. Unfortunately, I am no longer sure. True, the Internet connects all of us with every corner of the world. What I mean by "all of us," is those lucky enough to be able to connect. For the rest, the times may be changing, because there are those who believe that the Internet should be molded to fit those same old bureaucracies and corrupted institutions that have plagued humanity for decades, if not centuries. The solution, many times, feels far out of reach.

Some claim that a bordered Internet is the solution. These well-intentioned individuals do not understand the true nature of the technology. For them, this is another space to be exploited, or another area to be conquered and mastered, under the guise of security, against dangers that do not exist or are less urgent than presented. No, the truth is that the greatest danger faced by users of the Internet is the loss of privacy. This privacy that so many take for granted, or dismiss as insignificant or unimportant, is a fundamental human right that should be at the center stage of cyberspace. It is a real shame that this right has been so easily set aside, and labeled a casualty of war in the name of security and fighting crime. Governance of the Internet does not belong in the ambit of the parochial hegemon, benevolent or not, unless rigorous conditions are met. It belongs in a multistakeholder, bottom-up process. The goal should be a scheme of governance of the Internet that involves international stewardship, while simultaneously promoting human dignity.

I guess we should all be happy that we no longer have privacy. Who cares? Or, should we care? And if we do, will it make a difference? Privacy is a human right firmly rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, articles 1 and 12. While the former remind us that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," the latter specifically protects privacy. Those human rights always sound nice when the occasion arises to make some individuals feel proper or when a "convenient" time arises to make some individuals feel better. The inescapable truth is that all human rights are duties that governments are obliged to not only protect, but also enforce. Those obligations are unequivocally enumerated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in particular, the protection of privacy (article 17) and the right to hold and express opinions freely (article 19). Therefore, matters of privacy and data protection need further consideration, and should be at the forefront of any discussion that involves billions of Internet users.

Internet users should not be compelled to disclose personal information that is not required or necessary for the proper functioning of the Internet, unless compelling security needs of society exist that can be articulated and targeted to the individuals that present a credible threat to society. If we are to surrender some of our online privacy, and if we find that security is indeed a standard by which this privacy will be curtailed, then let it be absolutely clear that this compromise or social contract must be monitored under strict standards. These standards must be maintained to ensure that all personal information collected is utilized for its intended purpose. Privacy is a human right firmly rooted in law, and it certainly is neither an ideal nor an illusion. Human rights are inalienable.

The protection of human rights is not a facile slogan; it involves true human struggle. We are in the midst of a global fight for the soul of the Internet. All stakeholders involved in the governance of the Internet face a tall order. They must show the stewardship required to guard the Internet. Ultimately, a workable social contract, or global public trust, must be durable, sustainable and enforceable for the benefit of those who want to engage in it, and not to be used to oppress them.

By Roy Balleste, Law Library Director & Professor of Law

Related topics: Internet Governance, Law, Privacy

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