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Human Rights and Regular Internet Users

John Levine

Human rights are a topic that came up several times at the IETF meeting that just ended.

There's a Human Rights Research Group that had a session with a bunch of short presentations, and the featured two talks at the plenary asking, 'Can Internet Protocols Affect Human Rights?' The second one, by David Clark of MIT, was particularly good, talking about "tussle" and how one has to design for it or else people will work around you. You can watch it here.

Although his talk was a lot better than most of the human rights stuff I've heard in technical fora, the rest of the discussion had the same old problem: true believers obsessing about a very narrow set of issues.

While there's no consensus on what constitutes human rights, one of the most respected definitions is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights developed in 1946-48 by a group led by Eleanor Roosevelt and adopted by the United Nations. One of the reasons I liked Clark's talk is that he at least mentioned it (not with total approval) which is more than anyone else has.

The usual discussions have a laser focus on freedom of expression and personal privacy. While those are certainly important, the UDHR has 30 articles, which that focus ignores about 28 of them, and some of the others are at least as important in the day to day life of many Internet users.

Article 12 which mentions protection of privacy, says in full:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Attacks upon honor and reputation? Who knew that Mrs. Roosevelt foresaw Internet trolling? The people I know are worried about online troll attacks.

Article 17 says:

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

The people I know are also worried about malware cleaning out their bank accounts.

Read the rest of the declaration, and you'll find other rights that you'll likely also consider equally important to you.

I'm certainly not saying the free speech is unimportant (although a lot of Americans don't understand how unusual the absolutist U.S. first amendment approach is), but it devalues the whole topic of human rights to pay attention only to a few fashionable rights, while ignoring ones that are at least as important in people's daily lives.

Human rights are messy, and often in conflict with each other. As an obvious example, the stronger you make free speech protections, the less protection you offer against attacks on honor and reputation. They're both important, and the balance is not obvious.

If we're going to talk about human rights on the Internet, which I think we should, can we please talk about the unfashionable but important ones, too?

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker. More blog posts from John Levine can also be read here.

Related topics: Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation, Privacy


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great article Alex Deacon  –  Apr 05, 2017 3:55 PM PDT

John, thanks for this article and for making this important point during the plenary last week in Chicago. 

There is indeed a tendency to focus on certain human rights (e.g. the "fashionable" ones such as freedom of expression and privacy) to the exclusion or minimization of others including, I would add, Article 27 concerning the "right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Analyzing the impact of technology and policy on human rights (and vice versa) is indeed a balancing act given the intertwined and interdependent nature of all rights outlined in the UNDHR.

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