Human Rights and the Internet

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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.

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12 thoughts on “Human Rights and the Internet

  1. I worked for an IT Company and while I was there and when I left I had personal computer monitoring. When I made a comment on an anonymous blog board about the harassment I and other employees faced they knew about it and strongly believe I was mob /gang stalked because of it. I also have cell phone location monitoring as well by former employees and my boss can locate me anywhere I am. I have had another job affected and its been 3 plus years since leaving the company. We have no rights in the U.S as far as I am concerned. We need to stop allowing technology and technology companies the right to play big brother.

    • I wanted to explain what I meant by mob/gang stalking..some people may be like huh what the mob is after her… it's basically orgnaized stalking when you pick a person and a gang(i.e) 3 or more people work to emotionally "mob" a person which is basically a form of emotional abuse. I am a very opinionated person and for reasons not entirely understood, former employees I worked with follow me in my vehicle,hack my computer, entered my home ,track my phone basically invade my privacy to obviously make me upset. Their goal is to make a person lose their job , have no friends, lose connection to family, basically make them so upset some people commit suicide. My goal is to not let them do this so I openly talk about it to hopefully shame some of them and make others aware that this is no innocent game they are playing.

  2. I worked for an IT Company and while I was there and when I left I had personal computer monitoring. When I made a comment on an anonymous blog board about the harassment I and other employees faced they knew about it and strongly believe I was mob /gang stalked because of it. I also have cell phone location monitoring as well by former employees and my boss can locate me anywhere I am. I have had another job affected and its been 3 plus years since leaving the company. We have no rights in the U.S as far as I am concerned. We need to stop allowing technology and technology companies the right to play big brother.

  3. 'Secret detention centres' in Sri Lanka http://www.lankanewsweb.com/english/index.php?opt

    Amnesty International had cited 7 torture detention sites in northern Sri Lanka; five in Vavuniya and two in Mullaitivu.

    Poonthottam Maha Vidyalaya, 211 Brigade headquarters, Vallikulam Maha Vidyalaya, the PLOTE paramilitary detention centre and Dharmapuram as five camps in Vavuniya while two camps were named from Mullaitheevu.

    Miss Gaer said that there are allegedly five compounds in Dharmapuram detaining more than 700 men and women in abandoned buildings and houses, holding 80 top levels LTTE people and 300 civilian supporters.

  4. 'Secret detention centres' in Sri Lanka http://www.lankanewsweb.com/english/index.php?opt

    Amnesty International had cited 7 torture detention sites in northern Sri Lanka; five in Vavuniya and two in Mullaitivu.

    Poonthottam Maha Vidyalaya, 211 Brigade headquarters, Vallikulam Maha Vidyalaya, the PLOTE paramilitary detention centre and Dharmapuram as five camps in Vavuniya while two camps were named from Mullaitheevu.

    Miss Gaer said that there are allegedly five compounds in Dharmapuram detaining more than 700 men and women in abandoned buildings and houses, holding 80 top levels LTTE people and 300 civilian supporters.

  5. 'Secret detention centres' in Sri Lanka http://www.lankanewsweb.com/english/index.php?opt

    Amnesty International had cited 7 torture detention sites in northern Sri Lanka; five in Vavuniya and two in Mullaitivu.

    Poonthottam Maha Vidyalaya, 211 Brigade headquarters, Vallikulam Maha Vidyalaya, the PLOTE paramilitary detention centre and Dharmapuram as five camps in Vavuniya while two camps were named from Mullaitheevu.

    Miss Gaer said that there are allegedly five compounds in Dharmapuram detaining more than 700 men and women in abandoned buildings and houses, holding 80 top levels LTTE people and 300 civilian supporters.

  6. ‘Secret detention centres’ in Sri Lanka
    http://www.lankanewsweb.com/english/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=619:secret-detention-centres-in-sri-lanka&catid=1:general&Itemid=29

    Amnesty International had cited 7 torture detention sites in northern Sri Lanka; five in Vavuniya and two in Mullaitivu.

    Poonthottam Maha Vidyalaya, 211 Brigade headquarters, Vallikulam Maha Vidyalaya, the PLOTE paramilitary detention centre and Dharmapuram as five camps in Vavuniya while two camps were named from Mullaitheevu.

    Miss Gaer said that there are allegedly five compounds in Dharmapuram detaining more than 700 men and women in abandoned buildings and houses, holding 80 top levels LTTE people and 300 civilian supporters.