Anita Gurumurthy at the IGF 2016 Main Session: Connecting Human Rights

Anita Gurumurthy, Executive Director, IT for Change was a Panelist at the IGF 2016 Main Session, Connecting Human Rights - Emphasising Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for the Internet. In her intervention, she stressed the critical imperative to move beyond the binary of the online and offline, in our imaginary of rights. Human rights violations occur in the very real, hybrid interstices where embedded and embodied life meet the network.  Therefore,the idea of rights has to be re-calibrated to a different sociality in the digital age. This requires us to deal with key challenges such as the loss of privacy in the network-data complex, the lack of international jurisprudence to address transnational human rights issues in the digital age, and the emergence of a neo-colonial development datacracy.








Human Rights: Broadening the Conversation


Anita Gurumurthy, December 2016


1. Key milestones/ what has been achieved


The discursive remit or span of rights has become clearer and acquired some legitimacy. More recently, we have seen shifts that demonstrate a new phase of civil and political rights, that move away from cascading protests and rebellions of the previous decade to experiments in deepening democracy through a new public discourse.

I would like to point to Taiwanese experiments in crowdsourcing legislation and zero govt; the Spanish Municipalism movement and open source city movements. Right here, in Guadalajara we have seen the rise of Wikipolítica as an alternative to traditional politics. The hall mark of these practices is not resistance, but a civic republican framework through which individual freedom comes together with civic participation for the promotion of the common good, in which process the Internet is centrally implicated.

The practice of technology is also showing the way for the discourse of human rights. The free software community's contributions - particularly the Freedom Box project, launched in 2010-2011, to design and promote personal servers running free software for distributed social networking, email, etc., is a critical milestone to reclaim privacy, control over data and freedom to hold and share opinions.

What is evident is that all these practices not only suggest ideas for appropriation of the Internet, but ideas about the Internet itself and its radical and emancipatory potential for human rights.

2. What do we need to do to consolidate these achievements?

We need to look beyond the binary of the online and offline. Violations are in the very real, hybrid interstices where embedded and embodied life meet the network. The digitalisation of governance, for example, has far reaching implications for those who don’t own any gadgets, as they become subjects of a new datafied welfare regime.

We need to re-calibrate the idea of rights in terms of a different sociality in the digital age. This is about future proofing everything. David Kaye’s report on freedom of expression talks about how “the mechanics of holding opinions have evolved in the digital age”. One could say that the mechanics of everything have changed and so, we need new institutional frameworks.

3. What are emerging key issues to address?

First are the ethical-political issues arising from the global network-data complex. Thanks to the network-data complex that rides on and fortifies neo-liberal globalisation, rights and freedoms in relation to the Internet are cast in a zero-sum game – the right to connectivity means loss of privacy; the right to knowledge means an erosion of the public commons. This is ironic, given that the Internet paradigm is able to nurture an infinite-sum game. But may be, as Eben Moglen says, for more freedom, we may need to give up the pursuit of economic value we get out of data; “close the pipes”, to save our societies, and save rights. The real problem is that neo-liberal globalisation is increasingly shaping jurisprudence in a way that at the national and international levels, the rights of transnational corporations are seen as paramount. We need to think of how data governance regimes can promote collective intelligence and real collaboration.

The second is the absence of international jurisprudence to interpret human rights issues arising in the digital age. The extraterritorial and transnational issues that arise in commerce, crime, communication, trade, IP, etc. need a radical reinterpretation of the international human rights regime. As our lives become entangled in an essentially global, macro-political system that is not governed by democratic rule of law, the rules set by the powerful take over all aspects of human life.

There is the third issue of an emerging development autocracy – that of development datacracy – that is pushing the world onto a neo-colonial path. The rights implications of this call for a new dialogue globally on the adequacy of the human rights frameworks, as they exist.

With connectivity slowing down and half the world not yet connected, algorithmic decisions based on big data trails are unikely to be representative. In the 48 poorest countries, 90 percent are offline. Internet growth is slowing down and the gender digital divide increasing.

Algorithmic decision making can therefore create a huge representational deficit. Those on behalf of whom decisions are being made do not have digital footprints! At national and international levels, a privileged few are dictating machine cognition and shaping social memory.

The loss of sovereignty is very high for the poorest countries who simply do not have the capacity to manage their data. The result is the transfer of citizen data by national governments to transnational corporations, and with it, the feduciary duty of the state to safeguard people’s rights and interests.

The powers that be must be brought to account.

4. Additional points made during the open discussion

1. The discussion on data cannot be reduced to personal data and consent. Data is also a social phenomenon. In the oligarchic nexus between states and corporations, we will stand to lose out on the basic institutions of democracy and community if we incorrectly focus on the notion of data as an individual rights issue.

2. Economic, social and cultural rights are evolving ideas; they arise through particular historical moments as has been the case in India, for instance, on the recent laws on the right to food, right to education etc. At national levels, we need to advocate for a digital rights framework that recognises the indivisibility and interdependence of all rights, particularly focussing on access to the Internet as a right. If governments want to go digital by default, then access has to be by right. A framework for digital rights needs to include inter alia – public provisioning, public interest content, public access, minimum data allowance, digital literacy as a right, community owned infrastructure licenses, mechanisms for redressal, net neutrality (since we need to think of the architecture of the Internet itself) and the right to participation.

3. The discussion around a possible treaty on the Internet often tends to gravitate towards the question – Why do we need new international treaties, when we already have the foundational human rights instruments? But there are scores of issues – trade, intellectual property, militarization, crime, bio-ethics, labour, migration – all of which are being redefined because of the Internet. Unless we can have a horizontal layer of rights around the Internet – a global treaty on the Internet – that concerns CIRs, data, cloud, smart grids, Internet of Things, and much more that cuts across various domains, we cannot have global justice.

4. In the debate on human rights and the Internet, it is important to remember that the Internet is not only a communications infrastructure. It is also the primary means of production, an economic resource. Therefore, the dichotomy between online and offline is not only unhelpful, but may also do disservice to the unconnected, who are implicated in the network-data complex enveloping us today. We should separate the debate on communication rights and the Internet from that on digital rights and the Internet, which is a much broader set of issues.

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