United Nations Special Rapporteur calls upon IETF to assume its responsibility to respect human rights

The contemporary exercise of freedom of opinion and expression owes much of its strength to private industry, which wields enormous power over digital space, acting as a gateway for information and an intermediary for expression.”

It is with this sentence that United Nations Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, starts his most recent United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) report published today.

The report is bound to make waves. Not only across the legislative realm but also with the private sector and the various Internet Standard Developing Organizations (SDOs). Kaye calls on them to ‘protect and promote freedom of expression in a digital age’. In order to understand the findings in his report, it is important to present some background on the role of the UN Special Rapporteurs.

Special rapporteurs are appointed by the UN HRC to monitor, examine, report and advise on human rights. The UNSRs act as independent investigators and rapporteurs, working on the basis of a country or thematic mandate. Every year they present several reports outlining their activities, findings and recommendations to the UN HRC. The position of UNSR on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression was established in 1993. As such, its establishment and work matured in a decade that also saw the rapid rise and spread of the commercialized Internet.

Yet, it was not until the 2005 report by then UNSR Ambeyi Ligabo, that the reports explicitly started recognizing the role of the Internet in enabling the right to freedom of expression. Since then, the UNSR’s reports on the right to freedom of expression have increasingly focused on the role of the Internet in both inhibiting and enabling this right. Culminating with the reports of former UNSR mandate-holder Frank la Rue that established that human rights apply online as they do offline, and the latest report of current mandate-holder David Kaye.

The findings presented in Kaye’s latest report are particularly important because he focuses specifically on the responsibility of the private actors that maintain and build the Internet’s infrastructure, to protect the right to freedom of expression and access to information. Kaye explicitly mentions the work of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), as crucial to enabling the right to freedom of expression. He continues to identify several challenges, that are also being addressed by the work of the HRPC group, namely: the lack of sufficient consideration for human rights concerns in standard development; the lack of human rights knowledge and representation in these forums; and the (unintended) effects of (bad) engineering choices on the right to freedom of expression.

By highlighting the relationship between technical engineering, standard making and human rights, as well as presenting strong recommendations for improvements, the UNSR’s report anchors the discussion on the responsibility of the organizations maintaining and building the Internet in a human rights framework. His recommendations not only mention the efforts of the HRPC group, but also closely overlap with the work done by the group at the IRTF. Amongst others, Kaye mentions the need for advanced human rights impact assessments that document how human rights are impacted by technical work and the need for an increase in the number of technical experts sensitive to human rights concerns.

As mentioned, the recommendations resonate with the current work done by the HRPC group, especially with their effort to develop human rights protocol considerations that create awareness about the human rights impact of standards and protocols, document their impact and provide a concrete tool for engineers to understand their work as it relates to human rights. The report by UNSR Kaye indicates that the HRPC group is making real progress in ensuring that human rights are enabled on a protocol level, and that the Internet remains an open and accessible medium for providing unfettered connectivity and enabling human rights.

— This blog does not necessarily represent the opinion of the research group or the IRTF —