Future Tense

Digital Rights Are Human Rights

Freedom of speech matters just as much online as it does offline.

The need for public participation in global internet governance has never been more important.


Not long ago, the internet connoted progress, connection, exploration, innovation. But what trends do you associate with the net today? Disinformation? Hatred? Surveillance? Censorship? Monopoly? Child exploitation?

The dark mood about the digital age, while understandable, is also dangerous. The internet still offers enormous value as a tool for freedom of information and expression. But in attempting to fix its very real problems, we are concerned that governments—often with public support and encouragement—risk undermining its core benefits.

Repressive governments have long criminalized criticism of officials or institutions, often disguised as seemingly content-neutral measures such as laws on defamation, blasphemy, or lèse majesté (offending the dignity of a sovereign or the state, perhaps most often associated with Thailand). Now, in many countries, a Facebook post or a tweet can lead to a visit from the security services, an investigation, or worse. Cases span from India, where a young man was detained for irreverent posts on Facebook, to Zimbabwe, where, in November, an American woman was arrested after having insulted (now former) President Robert Mugabe on Twitter.

Even governments that have typically protected and promoted freedom of expression are taking steps that, while not in the same category of repression, could nonetheless lead to restriction on space for expression and association. For instance, Western European governments concerned about the problems posed by social media are adopting policies that undermine the protections offered to free speech in offline space. Earlier this year, Germany legislated against online “hate speech,” encouraging internet platforms to engage in what in essence would come down to online censorship. The United Kingdom’s Investigatory Powers Act—dubbed by opponents the “snooper’s charter” and adopted in 2016—provides security services and police with the power to hack into computers and phones and collect bulk communications data, severely endangering, among other things, the ability of journalists to protect their sources. Spain’s attempt to counter Catalonian separatism this fall has led to significant interferences with the flow of online information. And the U.S. immigration enforcement agency has called upon software developers to help it design algorithms allowing for continuous monitoring of the social media activity of visa-holders.

Next week’s Internet Governance Forum in Geneva is one of the few global arenas available to advocate for an internet safe and secure for freedom of expression, privacy, and other fundamental rights. An annual global meeting organized by the U.N., it provides a critical place for governments, internet companies, and civil society to re-emphasize the core human rights values at the center of the digital age. The IGF does not itself make decisions, but its very existence promotes an open, secure, and participatory internet, emphasizing its decentralized nature. From our different perspectives—as the U.N.’s principal monitor for freedom of expression worldwide and as a lawyer who has litigated freedom of expression cases around the world—we both have seen how IGF promotes a vision of internet governance that runs counter to the state-centralized management pursued by censorship-heavy governments. China and Russia, for instance, have pressed to “multilateralize” internet governance, effectively locking out civil society in favor of a state-dominated approach. China’s series of Wuzhen conferences have been a kind of counterpoint to IGF, reflecting the aggressive approach China takes toward uses of the internet that Western users take for granted.

This year, more than at any other of IGF’s 11 earlier sessions, participants must resist statist management of digital spaces. Instead, they need to celebrate and advocate for approaches that involve not only governments but also individual users, NGOs, private companies, technologists, and academics. These types of multi-stakeholder processes tend to argue that the best way to counter the ills of the digital age is to protect user autonomy and expression and to adopt solutions that have buy-in from all those using—and building and protecting—the internet. IGF arrives at a critical moment, and participants should aim, at a minimum, for three things.

First, IGF should celebrate and protect the internet’s role in facilitating the exercise of human rights. Governments are obliged under international law to protect the rights to freedom of expression, privacy, free assembly and association. Instead, governments regularly assault them, arguing—as they often do in times of terrorism and other threats—that compromise is necessary. We have seen this especially in the efforts by law enforcement, at national and local levels, to undermine encryption (a fundamental safeguard for user security), privacy, and expression. France sought to criminalize merely visiting websites deemed to encourage terrorism, which the Constitutional Council recently declared unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, compromise often involves a one-way ratchet, giving more power to states and few rights to individuals. IGF should stand for the principle that, where governments restrict online rights, they must also—as in offline space—demonstrate that the restrictions are necessary and proportionate to protect legitimate interests. Online or off, governments have an obligation to protect human rights.

Second, IGF should promote diversity and inclusion online. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s vote to repeal net neutrality is just one example of policies that threaten free speech online, placing more power in the hands of big telecom companies worldwide. Equal access means more information available to individuals, something that should not be left only to corporate actors.

That said, governments and companies alike must better address issues such as online harassment, which prevent equal participation online. Online harassment disproportionately targets women and minorities, facilitating a less diverse and less democratic online space. Governments and private actors need to find mechanisms that restrict online harassment and hold perpetrators accountable, within a framework of laws that does not undermine freedom of expression or privacy. This is easier said than done, but one way to start is to train law enforcement to understand how online abuse can constitute harassment and threats already criminalized under much domestic law.

Finally, IGF should encourage broad participation. Indeed, the need for public participation in global internet governance has never been more important. The IGF’s model of governance represents the most advanced effort at giving everyone a seat at the table when it comes to defining the future of the internet. IGF and other forums, like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the Internet Engineering Task Force, are where the future of the internet is being considered, its architecture and governance agreed. Public participation makes the case that the most important open communications platform ever invented should remain open, pluralistic, and democratic. We encourage everyone to take advantage of opportunities to engage. For instance, the European Union offers public platforms to engage on major internet issues, such as its current one on fake news and disinformation. Individuals and organizations can engage through mechanisms such as the IGF’s “dynamic coalitions.” Don’t be intimidated by the language or by the forums—we need your voice.

The internet can still be saved. But we all need to make a serious effort to do so.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.