Information & Communication Technology

Social Media & Human Rights: Keeping the virtual world one step ahead of the real world

Commentary, 12 December 2011

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

International Human Rights Day was marked by the United Nations on 10th December.

"The premise of the virtual world is freedom. Forward-thinking companies, governments, journalists and others with a stake in freedom of expression, as well as the human rights community, must remain vigilant, and work more effectively together to ensure that the virtual world stays ahead."

Keeping the virtual world one step ahead of the real world

To mark International Human Rights Day 2011, I had the privilege of joining an event at the United Nations in Geneva with some outstanding individuals who have used the power of the Internet to do exceptionally brave things in their countries.

They have used their blogs, and a variety of other tools to inform and empower people in difficult contexts and environments. Our discussion focused on new threats to such activism and how we could work to ensure both that the Internet remains open to all and that new technologies are not used to undermine the rights of individuals.

The panel at the Palais des Nations in Geneva focused on social media and human rights. (You can see a short video of my remarks here.

Each speaker gave their own perspectives on the role of information technology in advancing respect for human rights.

Wael Abbas explained how he has used the Web to inform Egyptians about political and social change in his country. Maite Azuela has similarly mobilised local communities in Mexico to demand greater transparency and political accountability. Bassem Bouguerra is a Tunisian software engineer based in the United States who has increasingly spent time in Tunisia to be part of the revolutionary changes sweeping the nation. Ednah Karamagi has been working in rural Uganda to promote the use of alternative technologies to empower farmers. And Meg Pickard, an anthropologist by training, discussed how her work with the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom bridges her background in community engagement with the needs of modern journalism.

These individuals, and many more like them, have been able to impart information, share ideas, and assist nascent movements by effectively using the power new technology has given them. Wael and Bassem mentioned that the key difference between earlier revolutions – as in Eastern Europe in 1989, for example – and the Arab Spring was the speed with which change had occurred. Granted, revolutions are ultimately brought about by people on the streets who sometimes face bullets from authoritarian governments, but mobilizing people is an important element, and new technologies and modes of communication have made it possible for individuals to do so, often in ways that governments cannot detect.

As I mentioned in a previous commentary, one of the fascinating things seen during the recent wave of demonstrations in countries around the world is the gratitude activists have expressed to technology companies whose products helped make their voices heard.

And yet, there are many companies that still haven’t got the message. Some continue to be complicit with governments that are bent upon violating human rights. Many have provided technology that allows companies to crack down on dissidents. Others have complied with requests that may even be illegal. Some have helped circulate messages that incite violence. As Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament, constantly says, it is important to stop what she calls “the digital arms trade”.

Indeed, at our panel discussion, one Swedish diplomat asked what governments like hers could do. Sweden is not only at the forefront of supporting free speech on the Internet and freedom of expression in general, it is at the forefront of the debate, having launched an initiative to ensure business respects human rights in the cybersphere.

I responded that countries, which have advanced technology that can have multiple uses, should impose export controls to make sure that authoritarian governments do not get their hands on sensitive technologies that can infringe upon human rights. The government of The Netherlands also organized a major meeting in The Hague just last week on the Internet and human rights.

The United States government has also been increasingly vocal in championing freedoms in cyberspace. At the Hague conference, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued: ““When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled and people constrained in their choices, the Internet is diminished for all of us. There isn’t an economic Internet and a social Internet and a political Internet. There’s just the Internet.”

If so, it is all the more important to recognize access to the Internet as a human right – not with a view to expand the number of rights, but to see it as an extension of the right to seek, receive, and impart information, and to exercise the right of freedom of expression. Too many governments want to opt out, citing cultural differences, political imperatives, security concerns, and domestic realities. Those are excuses. China has invested huge amounts in building the Great Firewall to control the information people can access by having sophisticated filtering technology that weeds out content the government does not like.

But Internet experts say that while it is easy to overcome, it is highly effective because few Chinese citizens want to take the risk of crossing the barrier, only to get caught, because the consequences can be disastrous. (Think of East Germans attempting to scale the Berlin Wall, and the guards at the watch-towers – many succeeded, many were shot. China doesn’t necessarily shoot those who try to scale the Great Firewall, but jail terms for dissidents can be depressingly long.

India’s demand that companies pre-censor content is impossible to implement, but that hasn’t stopped the government from calling for action from leading companies. In the Russian Federation, last week the secret service, FSB, asked Russia’s largest social network (VKontakte) to block online activities of opposition groups. The U.S. has also asked companies to take down content, or set up lawful intercepts to track down illegal activity under its Patriot Act, and its Stop Online Piracy Act threatens to censor the Internet in unprecedented ways, but most Internet companies are opposing it.

As Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of freedom of expression pointed out during our panel discussion, bloggers and activists are being criminalized – a trend that must stop. This trend – of businesses working with government to enable surveillance, governments cracking down on dissidents, and companies creating tools for governments to utilize more sophisticated intrusive monitoring of the Internet – shows the real world is getting close to the virtual world, in an attempt to snuff out fundamental freedoms.

The premise of the virtual world is freedom. Forward-thinking companies, governments, journalists and others with a stake in freedom of expression, as well as the human rights community, must remain vigilant, and work more effectively together to ensure that the virtual world stays ahead.

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