UN Special Rapporteur speaks at IETF 96 meeting in Berlin

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01 Aug 2016



Last month, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) held its 96th meeting in Berlin, Germany. The IETF is a key Internet standards developing organization (SDO) working on the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the Internet. ARTICLE 19 is involved in the work of the Human Rights Protocol Considerations (HRPC) research group. This group falls under the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), the research branch of the IETF. 

On 20 July, the HRPC group held its usual research group session... With some very unusual speakers. We were very lucky to hear from UN Special Rapporteur on the right to Freedom of Expression David Kaye, expert on the politics of protocols, Laura Denardis, and distinguished engineer at Cisco, Dr Alissa Cooper who is a long time IETF participant and member of the Internet Architecture Board

David Kaye discussed his latest report on the responsibility of the private sector that build Internet technologies, including standards and protocols, to respect human rights as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He made two controversial but important statements. First, he said that the IETF has to further develop procedures to ensure it undertakes human right impact assessments of its work and develop appropriate mechanisms for addressing, mitigating and remedying any negative impacts. Second, he said that the UN does not intend to impose (further) regulation on the IETF to achieve these goals, as it believes that multistakeholder approaches are the right approaches.

When asked about the role of the IETF to respect human rights, or whether that should be deferred to nation-states, the UN Special Rapporteur was crystal clear: from his perspective, ‘the core value of the Internet from the start, was creating space for connectivity and communication and this is perfectly in line with Human Rights standards, especially surrounding those on the right to Freedom of Expression.’

Laura DeNardis zoomed in on her research on the politics of protocols. She reiterated the famous words of her mentor Janet Abbate: ‘Protocols are politics by other means’. Laura explained how she sees governments turn towards the Internet’s infrastructure to achieve their political aims. This can have several negative consequences for freedom of expression online, as many of these policies by means of the Internet’s infrastructure are aimed at imposing national jurisdictions on the Internet and limiting online freedoms. She emphasized that the IETF could counter these developments by strengthening encryption and ensuring that Internet protocols are focused on maintaining interoperability. 

Alissa Cooper talked about the lessons that the IETF and HRPC working group in particular can draw from the development of Request for Comment (RFC) 6973 – the working documents of the IETF – on Privacy Considerations. She argued that some of the goals of the Privacy Considerations overlap with those of the HRPC group. She explained that, as the Snowden revelations coincided with the creating of the Privacy Considerations, it was difficult to measure the impact of RFC 6973. And made several suggestions on how the HRPC group could best move forward to ensure impact of their work, which included setting more scope limitations for their work and providing further specific examples of their application.

The remainder of the meeting, the research group’s members discussed the new working group document (formally known as the Research - Internet Draft (ID)), first presented at the IETF95 meeting in Buenos Aires, in April. The document draft clarifies how technical concepts relate to human rights, and what questions engineers should ask themselves when developing or improving protocols.  It is the first official document of the research group, definitively recognizing the importance of the work of done by the research group. It also means that going forward; the RG will use this document as a point of reference and departure for further research. The consensus on the draft, means we will need only one additional round of comments before going into the last call for document, which solidifies ARTICLE 19’s work in the IETF-IRTF.

On a similar note, after some consternation during the last IETF meeting in Buenos Aires about the venue selection of  IETF’s 100th meeting, the IETF started to review its standards for assessing if their venues are accessible to people with non-conformist family situations, or other special needs. The IETF sought out ARTICLE 19 to support with the drafting of a new venue selection method, and we helped set up a panel with human rights experts to guide this process. 

In addition to the work on the HRPC group, ARTICLE 19 joined the on-going efforts to set up a new “Diversity and Outreach” directorate, participated in the largest Syster lunch thus far which brought together over 60 women working at the IETF, joined the debate on encryption organized by GiGanet, and published an academic article, together with Professor Luciano Floridi, on the ethical responsibility of the IETF to respect human rights. We also participated in the ongoing debate within the IETF around the improvement of accessibility and harassment policies.

Last but not least, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Digital Niels ten Oever presented his on-going work on providing Internet access to refugees and migrants with the Refugee Hotspot at the IRTF GAIA session at IETF96. 

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