Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Making Sense Of The Digital Era: A Human Rights Approach To The Internet

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Defending the right to a free, open and interconnected Internet has become a touchstone of the western progressive tradition.

Finland and Estonia have gone furthest in their embrace of the internet as an instrument of free expression, ruling that access to the online “knowledge society” is a human right for their citizens. The Internet was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Price last March

Yet away from the political rhetoric and think-tank policy papers, the real world may look upon the internet as a useful but anarchic frontier of the global age.

Certainly that is the impression given by the media. The affectionate coverage which marked the arrival of the information superhighway is now underscored by a suspicion that the digital environment teems with menace.

If the virus, the hacker, the spammer or the sexual predator doesn’t get you, the identity fraudster will. Such is the web experience in 2010.

The media’s cautionary tales may be in the public interest but they also create fertile conditions for paranoia.

The mistrust which can flow from a rich diet of scare stories increases the likelihood that governments will rush to legislative action.

At a time of dizzyingly-rapid technological change, the potential for knee-jerk, ill-considered, ineffective or even misguided policies is clear.

Attempts by governments to block access to sites such as Blogspot, Twitter and You Tube are but the most glaring examples of a greater willingness to police the internet.

Content manipulation and censorship, the arrest and intimidation of bloggers, expanding surveillance and the use of filtering software are the raw material of a mounting assault on digital freedom by law-makers.

Whilst most of Europe’s 800 million citizens enjoy fewer intrusions on their right to a free internet, there is little reason for complacency.

Fears about terrorism, electronic fraud and other crimes and the distribution of child pornography have contributed to increased monitoring and tracking of online behaviour, secrecy in state deliberations and “three strikes” laws.

That is why the Council of Europe urges its 47 member states to adopt a human rights approach to digital policy.

It encourages national authorities to resist the temptation to ‘blanket’ block web sites and to avoid “mission creep” when acting against illegal distributors.

Cormac Callanan, co-author of the organisation’s report on cooperation between Internet service providers and law enforcement authorities said: “Technically, it is difficult. Legally, it is problematic. Above all, it represents a real threat to the free transfer of information and conflicts with basic democratic principles.”

The online circulation of child pornography presents a grave test for the Council of Europe’s ‘open internet’ approach.

While the organisation does not rule out the use of legal sanctions, it does advise a raft of other measures which could help the fight back against porn merchants.

Chief among these is the promotion of education as a real alternative to regulation, with emphasis placed on media literacy programmes.

The fear of vulnerable children being groomed on the internet is best dealt with by youngsters learning the arts of safe surfing, as the success of the Council of Europe’s Wild Web Woods game demonstrates.

As a ministerial conference last May in Iceland made clear, the Council of Europe’s approach is anchored by the willingness to bring human rights to the online world.

The conference resolution stated that “fundamental rights and Council of Europe standards and values apply to online information and communication services as much as they do to the offline world.”

Significantly, the resolution affirmed that “any interference with the freedom of expression and information must be prescribed by law and be a proportionate response to a pressing social need related to the limited exceptions set out in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights.”

Only through a consistent adherence to human rights principles will the Council of Europe’s member states achieve the coherent international policies that the digital era demands.

More Information

Children And The Internet
Personal Data Protection And Privacy

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