(Originally published in the Counterpart International Blog)
In its early days, the Internet was often described as a Utopian technology in service of promoting and protecting of human rights. It represented a world of freedom that would liberate all knowledge, empower people, and weaken the state by making it more transparent and accountable, leading to the realization of democratization and human rights. Today, digital technologies are omnipresent in our lives. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, drones, self-operating vehicles, and robots can take on tasks ranging from driving support, household help, and companionship of sorts, to policing and warfare.
In cyberspace, the mediation of human rights is distributed between many stakeholders, including traditional governments, new global institutions of Internet governance that design and administer technical infrastructure, and private sector actors that own and operate the networks and platforms over which information flows. Each of these stakeholders has their own interests. Governments may not be interested in strong protections for personal privacy; authoritarian governments have an interest in censoring dissidents, monitoring communications, and criminalizing online users for expressing their views; and private industry often lacks market incentives for basic privacy because their business models are predicated upon the collection, aggregation, and sharing of data to create advertising-driven revenue.
Often, private actors are stronger than states in managing cyberspace but none of them have been elected democratically.
Thus, balanced partnerships between civil society organizations (CSOs), academics, private companies, and governments could be a good mechanism to defend human rights and democracies in cyberspace. Indeed, these partnerships could ensure technology efficiency, defend public interests, and facilitate transparency of information if each partner has the ability to understand other points of view and bring its expertise to the design of common solutions.
Global events such as RightsCon are perfect gathering places to explore potential partnerships. CSOs, academics, private companies, and governments come to these events to participate in open dialogues on the current state of cyberspace and to create innovative solutions to tackle 21st century challenges.
Increasingly, major private digital players are looking to collaborate with governments, CSOs, and universities, ultimately helping them gain more legitimacy and explore new markets. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg advocated for more government regulation of the Internet. Currently, Microsoft is leading the creation of a non-governmental organization that will bring together civil society, technology, and policy communities from across the world to decrease cyberattacks on and increase the resilience of CSOs. Google Jigsaw is developing tools to tackle some of the toughest global security challenges such as online censorship, digital attacks, violent extremism, and online harassment with the support of CSOs. Twitter, which has been built on open source since the beginning, claims to support freedom of expression and democratic dialogues through its social media platform and inclusive and safe dialogues.
Major digital players are open for partnership but negotiating with them could be problematic. Indeed, being in line with human rights and democratic values also means being more transparent. For some private organizations, opening algorithms and datasets to potential global regulators could be a real turn-up in their business strategies.
Today, there are no consistent practices in public or private entities to conduct human rights impact assessments of the implementation of information and communications technology (ICT) solutions. Although the private sector has a clearer road map provided by UN Guiding Principles, there is no consistent application and no mechanisms for enforcement. State actors lack specific instruments regarding cooperation principles and often fail to fulfill their international human rights obligations when it comes to cooperation for ICT solution implementations.
Thus, global tech and policy platforms such as RightsCon or the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) should support the creation of mechanisms through partnerships able to defend human rights and democracies in cyberspace at the global level. To achieve this goal, power should be distributed wisely to partners in order to ensure mechanisms of independent control, transparency, and accountability to citizens.