In June of 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. gave the keynote address at the graduation of Oberlin College in Ohio. The broad theme of the address, like many of Dr. King’s speeches, was the pursuit of universally accepted civil rights around the world. What was unique about this occasion was the introduction of technological advances into the discussion. As Dr. King put it “What we are facing today is the fact that through our scientific and technological genius we’ve made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make of it a brotherhood”. In a single speech the need for fair and equal treatment in a shrinking world was fully articulated. While Dr. King was primarily referring to the impacts of innovations like air travel and television the advent of the Internet has re-sparked the conversation.
The creation and development of the Internet has been rightly heralded for transforming the lives of billions of people across the planet. It has eliminated the constraints proximity has always placed on our everyday actions. The World Wide Web has taken on the roles of marketplace, public-square and as the vehicle for our most personal communications. This change is not without risk and the most pressing issue may be how the Internet will influence the privacy and communications of its users. This leads us to deeper and more philosophical question; are there universal rights to which all Internet users are entitled? In this new global digital society we are just beginning to understand the importance of understanding the answer. We must also specifically look at how various governments around the world view the Internet. A government that sees their citizens’ online activity as a benefit to society will take very different actions than one which deems unfiltered communication as a threat.
Whenever the approval of various governments is necessary to resolve a problem things get difficult. This is especially true whenever the dispute involves establishing rights for all people. Add to this the near impossible requirement of getting every government in the world to agree and a picture of just how difficult a task enshrining universal online rights really is. While the virtual state that is the World Wide Web makes every user a de facto citizen, we all remain residents of the country we inhabit. Codifying a set of rights and responsibilities online cannot be achieved in the absence of government support. To be truly universal, any agreement must be endorsed and protected by the laws of every nation.
One of the most important by-products of the internet is how it has allowed users throughout the world to interact directly with one another. This is a dynamic shift creating one large community from what was once many. In the introduction of The offensive Internet: Speech, privacy, and reputation Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum (2010) describe how the internet has created a village of its many users. It is important to understand how free speech and privacy protections differ between real and digital communities. Levmore and Nussbaum (2010) note that in a true village, personal experiences and social structure protect the inhabitants, however in the online village “Most of us cannot there distinguish fidelity from fraud” (p.1). On the World Wide Web, it would appear we all need the protection of an established set of norms by which all participants abide.
In this new environment basic accepted freedoms face the same perils as in the physical world. But it is important to understand that the freedom of expression and the expectation of privacy most commonly discussed are in many ways Western traditions. Most freedom of speech discussions revolve around the established American definitions of speech as defined by the Supreme Court. As for privacy, this too is an ideal that is not universally accepted throughout the world. And this fact demonstrates the most important facet of the new virtual village; that its inhabitants are still subject to the laws of the nation they reside. If a company or individual in country X obstruct the online activities of a person in country Y what is the recourse? We must work to establish online freedoms acceptable to all nations in order to have an effective set of rules for Internet behavior.
So how do we bridge the gap between tenets accepted by many societies and a globally accepted framework? We must first establish whether we are truly entitled to any privileges online based on Western ideas of civil liberty. Jenifer Winters (2013), an Associate Professor of Networked Policy in the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii, explores whether internet access is a basic right in her piece Is internet access a human right?. She begins by linking information and communication technology development with global human rights efforts and then defining what basic freedoms technological advancements endanger (35). Winters places the concept of internet access as a human right in the context of the historical movement toward increased individual rights (36-38). She also traces the lineage of the basic right to communicate back several centuries (36). While Winters concludes that individuals must be able to express themselves and state opinions, several countries do not put as much stock in such notions. By tracing the evolution of civil and human rights, Winters inadvertently establishes that while the internet adds a new dimension to the discussion it does not create a seismic shift in the debate.
Freedom of expression is only part of the debate; privacy is also an important point of contention. As the Polish human rights lawyer Zuzanna Warso (2013) sees it, “The amount of everyday activity that until recently took place away from the computer but is now transferred online, legitimizes the need for the law to reflect the variety of online behaviors” (p.492). Put simply we are performing many more tasks online that traditionally took place in person. As the percentage of people online increases more and more personal information is made available to 3rd parties without our overt consent. The capturing of this digital exhaust is one of the most frightening aspects of the Internet. Online participants can never be fully aware of who is tracking their activity and for what purpose that information will eventually be used.
While Warso and her colleagues have a legitimate argument, it has not yet generated the groundswell of support necessary to promote rapid change. The total volume of communication and financial activity we now perform online should mandate universal protections. The road to a universally accepted standard to protect the anonymity of online activity may be hastened by the increasing volume of data breaches around the world. Without a comprehensive agreement it is entirely possible that the Internet will stagnate. For all of the improvements the web has provided in our quality of life we still need to feel safe using it.
Many online privacy advocates are calling for the right to be forgotten, which allows for individuals to opt for having their digital footprints erased. Warso believes the European laws have a narrow view of online privacy that does not take social networks into account. The very nature of social networks leaves information about many aspects of individual’s lives to be harvested by the companies running these sites. While it may be easy to suggest people actively acknowledge and accept the information being gathered, the true scope of what is being captured is astounding. And because of this activity the private sector join governments in limiting online rights. The good news is that some steps are being taken to understand and address issues tied to privacy on the web. Western Europe is at the forefront of grappling with concerns over what personal freedom and privacy on the Internet entail.
In April of this year the Freedom Online Coalition met is Estonia to discuss the basic human rights most impacted by the Internet. The fact that over 60 countries participated demonstrates just how important protecting people’s rights online has become. Federico Guerrini’s (2014) Forbes article, A guide to human rights of internet users launched today in Estonia, summarizes the most important aspects of the conference. The major accomplishment is that a framework of rights had been adopted by the European council member states earlier in the year, which outlines basic freedoms web users should enjoy. Guerrini explains that “The Guide focuses on the human rights on which the internet has most impact: access and non-discrimination, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly, association and participation, privacy and data protection, education and literacy, protection of children and young people, and the right to effective remedies for violations of human rights” (2014).
The fact that only 60 of the 196 countries in the world participated highlights the challenges of reaching a consensus on universal online rights. Many of the freedoms discussed at the conference are not protected by many countries in their citizen’s everyday lives. Even in countries that do offer these protections standards and enforcement levels vary greatly. It is unlikely to envision any universally enforced liberties in a world with such diversity of interpreting what freedoms individuals are permitted to have.
Europe has certainly taken the lead in the area of online governance. But for all the leadership Europe has shown in the movement toward establishing universal online rights, the conference has shown some important obstacles that must be overcome. Long standing political rivalries are already threatening to derail any meaningful gains. It is difficult to imagine a globally acceptable charter if consensus cannot be reached by the most engaged nations. Every nation must begin to view establishing online freedoms as a victory for its citizens.
It is crucial to fully understand why certain countries do not support the same model of what constitutes civil rights. This is significant because societies will continue to advocate for online freedoms that mirror the ones they understand and enjoy now. The values most valued by individuals are as varied as the many countries they reside in. While Americans may bristle at the idea of having web content blocked, it is an everyday occurrence in China. With the most people online in the world, China’s opposing view in terms of online rights is important to take into account. Hara Hvistendahl (2014) explains a recent study designed to help understand state censorship of the internet in China. The study found that in China Internet censorship is not based on the fear of allowing citizens to criticize the government. Instead the goal seems heavily geared toward preventing civil unrest and demonstrations. Promoting a peaceful society is the primary of all governments and China sees censorship as a tool to accomplish this. In this case we can understand the utility the Chinese authorities see in limiting some forms of speech online even if we disagree with them.
It is intriguing that posts critical of the government and even individual leaders are often not censored in China, where as Russia has a very different take on the power of the Internet. Federico Guerrini (2014) provides a great example of the growing fears about Russia’s online strategy. He reports that in the opening remark of the Freedom Online Coalition conference, the Foreign Minister of Estonia chastised Russia for its use of online propaganda to stoke anger in the Ukraine. The cost paid for freedom of expression was the spread of misinformation and there is little agreement as to where the line limiting free speech online should be drawn. While this trade-off may be acceptable to us, others see freedom of speech as a license to control the conversation with deception.
Even in the United States, a country with the progressive and longstanding traditions protecting individual rights and privacy, the digital age deepened existing fissures in how we interpret the Bill of Rights. Shannon E. Martin (1995) contends that government control of information control in the Internet age highlights the opposing schools of thought between the legislative and executive branches (p.114-116). The difference is both philosophical and important; Congress views personal freedoms as natural rights while the executive branch sees them in terms of utility. Because the President is charged with both administering laws and protecting the wellbeing of the country he must take into account what is lost and gained by controlling the gathering and flow of online information. We as individuals and the Congress may have the luxury of seeing online rights as absolute, but the executive branch is not permitted such high minded thinking.
This may help explain the uproar over the secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden. In hind-sight it seems ridiculous to believe that the government was not participating in the surveillance of its citizens, but our natural rights mindset blinded us that reality. Martin explains that since the Constitution expresses what Congress cannot do to limit personal freedoms, while not mentioning the branch of the government who actually execute the laws is a dangerous mix. He notes that in this environment interpretations of our online rights are left “In the hands of a relatively small number of federal bureaucrats more interested in the success of government actions that in the preservation of government’s principles and ideals” (115).
The shift from online freedom and privacy being seen as universal by our Congress when creating laws and being viewed in terms of utility when the executive branch executes the laws is important to understand when trying to decipher where America really stands on this subject. Because the interpretation and administration of these laws influences both our domestic and foreign policy, utility has become the guide for deciding if and when America participates in blocking content and online surveillance. Madeline Carr (2013) believes the balance between freedom and security online are now placed in the context of the State Departments 21st century statecraft doctrine (p.629). America supports the use of Twitter to speak directly to the citizens of our adversaries while actively working to limit these governments from communicating their ideas to the western world (p.630-632). Unfortunately, when online rights move from a universal truth to a foreign policy initiative the entire movement for online rights is set back. Groups who earnestly believe in the universal nature of online rights must now contend with resistance from naysayers who believe they are puppets of the American government.
What may be more concerning is that the lens of utility is now creeping into how Congress views protecting people’s right to communicate online. A perfect example of this may be the proposed legislation known as the Global Online Freedom Act. The bill would add unfettered internet access to how our country evaluates other nation’s human rights record. It is disheartening when one realizes that no provisions are made for assessing whether American’s have unrestricted access to any sites they wish to visit. As Madeline Carr points out, the American government has taken great steps to limit our access to Iranian news programs (p.632). This only reinforces many nations concern that online rights are only a front for an American attempt to control what people can access online.
While the bill has not garnered the support necessary to become law, it does outline some important actions the U.S. government can take to protect online freedoms around the world. Dr. Ian Brown (2013), the associate director of Oxford University’s Cyber Security Center, addresses the purpose of the proposed U.S. legislation. The bill would require corporations to self-report when private user information is provided to foreign governments (p.153). The participation of the private sector is critical to understanding when governments are requesting information to track their citizens. Having evidence verifying a nation is attempting to use the Internet as a surveillance tool will allow the U.S. to put export restrictions on technology that could be used to censor or track users on the web.
It is understandable to view the Global Online Freedom Act and America’s push for greater Internet freedoms with suspicion. This is especially true in light of the recent revelations about America tracking its citizen’s online footprints. Because the proposed legislation does not speak to who will judge if America is using advanced technology to continue monitoring its citizens, there is little incentive for other nations to avoid the same methods. What is really needed is for America to pass legislation aimed at articulating and protecting a set of rights for Internet users. This online Bill of Rights may be what is necessary to spur international cooperation. Without tangible and progressive action by the American government, the aspiration for comprehensive online freedoms will remain just out of our grasp.
Because the basic concepts inspiring calls for greater online freedoms is rooted in traditional theories of civil and human rights, the conversation must be rooted in them as well. This is not to say that the pursuit of greater online freedoms and privacy are without merit, it is merely meant to frame those concerns in the larger discussion. One cannot reasonably expect to defend liberties in a virtual society that are left unprotected in the real world. Advocates for a Magna Carta like document, protecting our online activity, will be better served by focusing their efforts on protecting civil rights in general. In that way online rights will be enforced by default.
Brown, I. (2013). The global online freedom act. The Georgetown Journal on International Affairs, 14(1), 153.
Carr, M. (2013). Internet freedom, human rights and power. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 67(5), 621-637. doi: 10.1080/10357718.2013.817525
Guerrini, F. (2014, April 29). A guide to human rights of internet users launched today in Estonia. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/federicoguerrini/2014/04/29/a-guide-to-human-rights-of-internet-users-launched-today-in-estonia/
Hvistendahl, M. (2014). Study exposes chinese censors’ deepest fears. Science, 345(6199), 859-860. doi: 10.1126/science.345.6199.859
King, M. L., Jr. (1965, June). Commencement address. Speech presented at 1965 Oberlin College Commencement in Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH.
Levmore, S., & Nussbaum, M. C. (2010). Introduction. In The offensive Internet: Speech, privacy, and reputation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Martin, S. E. (1995). Federal information control in a technological age. In Bits, bytes, and big brother: Federal information control in the technological age (pp. 111-116). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Warso, Z. (2013). There’s more to it than data protection – fundamental rights, privacy and the personal/household exemption in the digital age. Computer Law and Security Review, 29(5), 491-500. doi: 10.1016/j.clsr.2013.07.002
Winter, J. S. (2013). Is internet access a human right? Linking information and communication technology development with global human rights efforts. Global Studies Journal, 5(3), 35-48.