Human Rights and the internet

A conference examining and exploring how the human rights and high-tech sectors can better plan for and manage the human rights implications of new technologies. (c)

Exploring how the human rights and high-tech sectors can better plan for and manage the human rights implications of new technologies. (c)

By Widney Brown, Senior Director,  International Law and Policy, Amnesty International

Technology companies have built their businesses squarely in the sphere of human rights. And their profits reflect the hunger people have for exercising these rights. We are hungry to speak our mind. We are hungry to get information that will help us understand the world and make those in power responsive and accountable. And we want to be protected from interference in our lives by governments.

The video from the streets of Sa’ana, Yemen, shown in real time at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference being held this week, was a powerful reminder of the depth of this hunger. In Yemen, as in Syria, people are being killed daily as they demand their rights. These protestors risk their lives because, in the words of a young woman speaking at the rally, the people of Yemen want “the darkness to cease and the rays of light to illuminate the sky.”

Freedom of expression, the right to information and the right to privacy are at the heart of the business of digital technology companies. Yet, despite this clear synergy between the business model of these companies and human rights, the technology sector has been slow to grapple with their responsibility to respect human rights.

The debate remains if and whether to regulate the sector; whether technology companies have any role to play regarding human rights; whether there is a place for anonymity on the internet; and whether to comply with laws that are patently illegitimate.

The debate should be: how to promote freedom of expression, how to ensure people’s access to information and how to protect their users from being stalked and abused by governments. To do this effectively, companies need to be present in the fight for human rights.

Alaa abd el Fattah, an Egyptian activist facing a military tribunal for his blogging, explained that Vodafone and other mobile phone and internet service providers knew that the government had enacted a law that gave it the power to demand these providers flip the “kill switch.” They did not fight against this when it was first proposed and when asked by the Egyptian government to hit the switch during the protests in January, they complied promptly and argued they had no choice.

It’s easy to just say “the government made me do it.” But it is not a legitimate defence. After freely choosing to enter into this sphere, technology companies cannot then hide behind illegitimate laws that undermine human rights. These companies must defy governments when asked to be complicit in human rights abuses. To do anything less is to betray their users.

So what is the solution? Technology companies must challenge laws that suppress free expression, censor information and invade users’ privacy. They should do it because it is the right thing to do. It is too ironic to have the very companies that have thrived in the virtual world to become partners – unwillingly or voluntarily — of governments as they try to restrict in the internet by violating rights.

Technological innovation has flattened the world of information and communication. This terrifies governments and other powerful actors who understand they risk being exposed for their bad behaviour. They know all too well that information is power. To keep this world flat and to ensure that governments do not eviscerate human rights by controlling the virtual world, technology companies must work hand in hand with human rights activists to thwart any attempts to undermine these rights. And, they must use their prodigious skills at creating technology that empowers users while protecting them from human rights abuses.

Posted in International Organizations | 7 Comments

  1. James Miller says:

    And man to man the world over will be brothers. O yes they will!

  2. Knowledge is power! I fully support the idea of tech companies taking more responsibility to help make the change that the world needs in the places currently being hurt by suppression, and so forth. Yes!

  3. نحمد الله على التطورات التكنلوجية وتلك جعلت العالم قرية صغيرة واستفاد ناشطى الحقوق من تلك الشبكات وقد وجدت تسهيلات رائعة للنظال من اجل حقوق الانسان انا جدا سعيد وانا الاان ناشط حقوقى امارس ذالك من الشبكات والانترنت وانظمتت اليكم
    انجاز رائع جدا

  4. Anthony Brewbaker says:

    Government has taken such a backwards roll compared to it’s youth. You would think it would be evolving for the better with the times. With the inprovment of technology and the ability to communicate, knowledge should be growing for the improvement of socity. The roll of government is to do just that, govern. Not to control, manipulate, and oppress the citizens of our nations. People should not be looked upon like a herd to be moved how it is deemed behind closed doors.

  5. I totally agree with Anthony. These advancements are created for the benefit of everyone and not only for companies and the government to own. Regardless of the effects, human rights has to be considered at all times. These innovations should lead us to a better communication with the government and with those who made these technology advancements possible.

  6. Internet is a very important tool for victims of human rights violation and human rights defenders equally. Without internet, fight for human rights can not be imagined.

  7. Red says:

    It is very importnat that people must know how to use the sources which they own.And it must be controlled.

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