human rights

What is the responsibility of the private industry, which runs and owns much of the Internet, towards human rights?

The Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. Image: United Nations Photo (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“The digital access industry is in the business of digital expression […] since privately owned networks are indispensable to the contemporary exercise of freedom of expression, their operators also assume critical social and public functions. The industry’s decisions […] can directly impact freedom of expression and related human rights in both beneficial and detrimental ways.” [Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, June 2017] The Internet is often portrayed as a disruptive equaliser, an information medium able to directly give individuals access to information and provide a platform to share their opinions unmediated. But the Internet is also a tool for surveillance, censorship, and information warfare. Often states drive such practices, but increasingly the private sector plays a role. While states have a clear obligation to protect human rights on the Internet, questions surrounding the human right accountability of the private sector are unclear. Which begs the question what the responsibility is of the private industry, which runs and owns much of the Internet, towards human rights? During the 35th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council this month, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur (UNSR) for the right to freedom of expression, presented his latest report [1], which focuses on the role of the private sector in the provision of Internet and telecommunications access. The UNSR on freedom of expression is an independent expert, appointed by the Human Rights Council to analyse, document, and report on the state of freedom of expression globally [2]. The rapporteur is also expected to make recommendations towards ‘better promoting and protection of the right to freedom of expression’ [3]. In recent years, the UNSRs on freedom of expression increasingly focus on the intersection between access to information, expression, and the Internet [4]. This most recent report is a landmark document. Its focus on the role and responsibilities of the private sector towards the right to freedom of…

Exploring the complexities of policing the web for extremist material, and its implications for security, privacy and human rights.

In terms of counter-speech there are different roles for government, civil society, and industry. Image by Miguel Discart (Flickr).

The Internet serves not only as a breeding ground for extremism, but also offers myriad data streams which potentially hold great value to law enforcement. The report by the OII’s Ian Brown and Josh Cowls for the VOX-Pol project: Check the Web: Assessing the Ethics and Politics of Policing the Internet for Extremist Material explores the complexities of policing the web for extremist material, and its implications for security, privacy and human rights. Josh Cowls discusses the report with blog editor Bertie Vidgen.* *please note that the views given here do not necessarily reflect the content of the report, or those of the lead author, Ian Brown. Ed: Josh, could you let us know the purpose of the report, outline some of the key findings, and tell us how you went about researching the topic? Josh: Sure. In the report we take a step back from the ground-level question of ‘what are the police doing?’ and instead ask, ‘what are the ethical and political boundaries, rationale and justifications for policing the web for these kinds of activity?’ We used an international human rights framework as an ethical and legal basis to understand what is being done. We also tried to further the debate by clarifying a few things: what has already been done by law enforcement, and, really crucially, what the perspectives are of all those involved, including lawmakers, law enforcers, technology companies, academia and many others. We derived the insights in the report from a series of workshops, one of which was held as part of the EU-funded VOX-Pol network. The workshops involved participants who were quite high up in law enforcement, the intelligence agencies, the tech industry civil society, and academia. We followed these up with interviews with other individuals in similar positions and conducted background policy research. Ed: You highlight that many extremist groups (such as Isis) are making really significant use of online platforms to organise,…