ARTICLE 19 Statement Delivered to the 2017 WSIS Forum High-Level Policy Sessions

Inclusiveness and Access to Information and Knowledge

On June 13, ARTICLE 19 presented the following statement on Inclusiveness and Access to Information and Knowledge during the High-Level Policy Sessions held at the 2017 WSIS Forum in Geneva. The High-Level Policy Sessions bring together stakeholder representatives from across the public sector, private sector, technical communities, academia, and civil society to discuss how information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be harnessed to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the opportunity to address the 2017 WSIS Forum as part of the High-Level Policy Session. ARTICLE 19 is an international human rights organization that is committed to the protection and promotion of freedom of expression and information. The work of ARTICLE 19’s Digital Programme focuses on the nexus of human rights, Internet infrastructure, and governance. As such, we actively participate in forums across the Internet governance and standards development landscape, including ICANN, the IETF, the IEEE, the ITU, and the IGF.

We commend the commitment of WSIS stakeholders to increase inclusiveness and access to information and knowledge in pursuit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The notions of inclusiveness and access pervade the discourse of the information society. Connecting the unconnected. The next billion. These touchstones have become familiar—even foundational—to the policies and practices of WSIS stakeholders across sectors and around the world. However, we remain concerned that the WSIS Forum and its stakeholders have yet to engage with these principles fully.

The outcome of the WSIS+10 review affirmed the commitment of the Tunis Agenda to the right to freedom of opinion and expression and other rights as guaranteed to all individuals by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In its conclusion, the WSIS review was unequivocal: human rights comprise the very core of the WSIS vision.

How, then, should the information society improve inclusiveness on the Internet in the context of human rights? The Action Lines framework stemming from the WSIS process attempts to explore what universal accessibility truly means. The result cleaves into two major considerations: how many people are connected to the Internet, and how much information is freely available. Clearly, these indicators are important for measuring progress towards greater inclusiveness. But inclusiveness is not simply a numbers game.

The human rights framework necessitates universalaccess to the Internet. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression first affirmed universal access as a priority for the development of the Internet.[1] The OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression subsequently delineated this universality, asserting that, in accordance with international human rights, access to the Internet must be guaranteed across divisions of geography, political affiliation, education, socioeconomic status, gender, and disability.[2] The WSIS Action Lines attempt to recognize some element of this intersectionality, noting the importance of affordability to access. Nevertheless, it does not go far enough.

The consideration of the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of all Internet users pushes our understanding of what it means to be truly inclusive beyond the myopathy of a quantitative economic perspective. To ensure inclusiveness, a focus on extending and refining the Internet’s infrastructure to provide greater and cheaper connectivity is not enough. The information society must also consider how powerful actors can and do exert control over this infrastructure to create, reinforce, and magnify the systems of repression and marginalization that already exist offline. It is from this understanding that we can develop truly meaningful policies to ensure access to information and knowledge for everyone, everywhere.

How, then, should the information society consider access to information and knowledge in the context of human rights? ARTICLE 19 recognizes the importance of ensuring access to information as an indelible part of achieving the ninth Sustainable Development Goal: building a resilient global Internet infrastructure. However, the recent actions of public and private sector stakeholders alike—those that are part of the information society itself—have undermined the right to freedom of expression online, including the right to information. To uphold the integrity of the WSIS vision, all stakeholders of the information society must resolve to:

  • Protect online anonymity and security of Internet users. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has previously established that the opportunity for online anonymity and availability of encryption tools are vital to ensuring freedom of expression.[3] Anonymity through tools such as the Tor browser allows individuals to disseminate and access any and all information without fear of repression or reprisal. The use of encryption tools, including secure messaging applications and virtual private networks (VPNs), and the use of secure communication protocols, such as HTTPS to encrypt web traffic, facilitate the open access to information that may be otherwise throttled by censorship or chilled by surveillance.

Recently, the United States and the United Kingdom led a worldwide wave of governments in issuing policies that undermine anonymity and the use of encryption on the Internet. These policies typically orient the restrictions as responses to terrorism and other threats to national security. However, efforts to subvert anonymity and encryption are ineffectual and blunt policy responses that disproportionately impact all Internet users, thereby failing to meet the standards set by the human rights framework. Without the protection of anonymity, open access to information will be a luxury that eludes the most marginalized, including political dissidents and human rights defenders.

If individuals lose trust in the Internet as a civic space and lose confidence in the security of their communications online, accessibility and connectivity as envisioned in the WSIS Action Lines will cease to be salient measures of success; existing and potential users alike will turn away from accessing the Internet altogether.

  •  Put an end to Internet shutdowns and other efforts to block or filter the free flow of information. The prevalence of Internet shutdowns and incidents of censorship are on the rise. Earlier this year, the government of Cameroon ordered CAMTEL, the state-owned telecommunications company, and its subsidiaries to restrict access to social media applications and communications tools throughout the western regions of the country. Earlier this month, the government of Ethiopia ordered an Internet shutdown affecting both the public and private sectors—this incident marks the third shutdown within the state over the last year. The incidents aren’t simply disruptions in connectivity. These shutdowns are blunt political tools that are designed to control the flow of information over the networks, thereby stifling protests and other forms of legitimate expression. The impact is clear:  Internet users’ access to information is fundamentally constrained.

Internet shutdowns and other efforts to block or throttle access to particular content online are explicitly denounced in accordance with the international human rights framework. The Human Rights Council has condemned outright any measure to prevent or disrupt the exchange of information on the Internet.[4]

The WSIS Action Lines evaluate access to information and knowledge in limited terms, focusing on the number of resources to which Internet users can connect. It is not enough. Access to information must be open and unrestricted across the full diversity of content available on the Internet. The human rights framework emphasizes the discretion of Internet users to decide what information to access.

  • Meaningfully engage with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Protecting freedom of expression online is not solely the responsibility of the public sector. The majority of the Internet’s infrastructure—as well as the applications running over it—are developed, operated, and maintained by the private sector. As governments increasingly turn to infrastructure to meet political aims, these intermediaries have been increasingly compelled to filter or block individuals’ access to information online. At the same time, they may independently engage in practices that challenge the rights of Internet users, without transparency, clear guidelines to which users can refer, or appropriate mechanisms for appeal. WSIS stakeholders must take steps to address this accountability gap.

Recently, Vodafone—a telecommunications company based in the United Kingdom—announced its planned partnership with the government of Iran. This partnership will likely result in major improvements to Iran’s existing telecommunications infrastructure, facilitating greater connectivity. However, concerns remain that Vodafone’s activities in Iran will facilitate the ongoing censorship regime by abetting the infrastructural system of surveillance already in place. With little transparency, how can we consider the potential impacts of Vodafone and other private actors on the rights of users?

All WSIS stakeholders should recognize the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The UNGPs reaffirm states’ responsibilities to protect human rights and to ensure access to effective remedy according to existing human rights obligations. However, the UNGPs also formally recognize the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, using the human rights framework to establish rigorous benchmarks. The UNGPs are designed to engender a process of due diligence within the private sector. As the first step in this process, private actors should develop and implement human rights impact assessments that systematically identify any adverse impacts of their policies and practices on human rights.

It is clear that the consideration of human rights is essential to ensuring inclusiveness and access to information and knowledge, and ultimately to ensuring the sustainability of economic and social development. Yet, the discussions of the WSIS Forum have yet to truly engage the UDHR and the international human rights framework as part of these efforts. The policy points above are not exhaustive. Corporate interests throttle fair use and other forms of expression under the pretense of innovation; states seek to stifle any online service that threatens to disrupt their hold over the market. But the brash vision for a free and open Internet persists. As the information society looks forward to WSIS 2025 and the future of the Internet, it cannot lose focus of what exists at the core of this vision.

All policy statements delivered during the 2017 High-Level Policy Sessions are published in the WSIS Forum High-Level Track Outcomes document, which is available online here.

[1] Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, 2011, p. 22.

[2] Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Freedom of Expression and the Internet, 2013, p. 6.

[3] Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, 2015.

[4] Human Rights Council, Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, 2016, p. 2.