Human Rights and the Internet

November 3, 2011

Anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir Square in the final days of President Mubarak's rule. ©Chris Hondros/Getty Images

By Widney Brown, Senior Director, International Law and Policy, Amnesty International

Technology companies have built their businesses squarely in the sphere of human rights. And their profits reflect the hunger people have for exercising these rights. We are hungry to speak our mind. We are hungry to get information that will help us understand the world and make those in power responsive and accountable. And we want to be protected from interference in our lives by governments.

The video from the streets of Sa’ana, Yemen, shown in real time at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference being held this week, was a powerful reminder of the depth of this hunger. In Yemen, as in Syria, people are being killed daily as they demand their rights. These protestors risk their lives because, in the words of a young woman speaking at the rally, the people of Yemen want “the darkness to cease and the rays of light to illuminate the sky.”

Freedom of expression, the right to information and the right to privacy are at the heart of the business of digital technology companies. Yet, despite this clear synergy between the business model of these companies and human rights, the technology sector has been slow to grapple with their responsibility to respect human rights.

The debate remains if and whether to regulate the sector; whether technology companies have any role to play regarding human rights; whether there is a place for anonymity on the internet; and whether to comply with laws that are patently illegitimate.

The debate should be: how to promote freedom of expression, how to ensure people’s access to information and how to protect their users from being stalked and abused by governments. To do this effectively, companies need to be present in the fight for human rights.

Alaa abd el Fattah, an Egyptian activist facing a military tribunal for his blogging, explained that Vodafone and other mobile phone and internet service providers knew that the government had enacted a law that gave it the power to demand these providers flip the “kill switch.” They did not fight against this when it was first proposed and when asked by the Egyptian government to hit the switch during the protests in January, they complied promptly and argued they had no choice.

It’s easy to just say “the government made me do it.” But it is not a legitimate defence. After freely choosing to enter into this sphere, technology companies cannot then hide behind illegitimate laws that undermine human rights. These companies must defy governments when asked to be complicit in human rights abuses. To do anything less is to betray their users.

So what is the solution? Technology companies must challenge laws that suppress free expression, censor information and invade users’ privacy. They should do it because it is the right thing to do. It is too ironic to have the very companies that have thrived in the virtual world to become partners – unwillingly or voluntarily — of governments as they try to restrict in the internet by violating rights.

Technological innovation has flattened the world of information and communication. This terrifies governments and other powerful actors who understand they risk being exposed for their bad behavior. They know all too well that information is power. To keep this world flat and to ensure that governments do not eviscerate human rights by controlling the virtual world, technology companies must work hand in hand with human rights activists to thwart any attempts to undermine these rights. And, they must use their prodigious skills at creating technology that empowers users while protecting them from human rights abuses.