How to ensure a safe and secure Internet? Not cyber ethics but human rights and multistakeholderism are the answer

by Anja Kovacs

On 21 October, 2013, a High Level Leaders Meeting took place in Bali on the day before the start of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The theme of the meeting was 'Global Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration for Achieving a Safe, Secure and Tolerant Cyberspace: Enabling Growth and Sustainable Development through Cyber Ethics'. Anja Kovacs was invited to address the meeting as a panelist. A lightly edited transcript of her comments, which urged the gathering to give priority to human rights and multistakeholderism over and above cyber ethics, can be found below.

Thank you, Mr. Chairperson, and good morning Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, and especially Your Excellency Mr. Tifatul Sembiring for hosting the meeting and also for allowing me to contribute here and make some remarks from the perspective of people — not just Internet users, but people in general.

There were three aspects of the title for this event that I would like to touch on. The first one is cyber ethics. What immediately came to mind when I saw that phrase was the title of an article that Shehla Shora, a colleague of mine, recently wrote, in which she asked: are we moving towards a system of accountability without power? Not power without accountability, but accountability without power, as those who do not have power are increasingly pushed towards being responsible’ and accountable’, without equal protections for the rights that should match such responsibilities?

Cyber ethics is essentially about norms and principles. Those are appropriate when it comes to ideas about how to steer Internet governance, how to take decisions about the Internet architecture, perhaps even to further guide to behavior of governments and businesses.

But for users, norms and principles are a step down from a framework that we already have to ensure a safe, secure, and tolerant Internet, which is that of human rights. Asking for responsibility and accountability without providing strong protection for human rights actually undermines those rights, and rather than emphasizing ethics, what we should emphasize and teach is mutual respect for human rights.

What we see at the moment — and let’s examine this in some more detail — is a lack of balance. Users are urged to be accountable and responsible especially in the context of debates around freedom of expression, with reference being made to hate speech to emphasize the importance of these norms. As an organisation coming from India, where recently almost fifty people died in riots believed to have been sparked by content that was spread on the Internet, hate speech is clearly a concern for us as well. But all too often, while restrictions might be legitimate in some cases, we see that responsibility and accountability are words that are simply used to reinforce restrictions on freedom of expression that are not necessarily legitimate, and that do not take into account the fact that freedom of expression is embedded in a network of rights that are interlocked and that require each other in order to be enjoyed and exercised.

Because this emphasis on the interconnectedness of rights is not made, it’s not possible anymore to see where to draw the line. Clear and high thresholds need to be in place for legal restrictions on free speech, and it has to be remembered that the right to shock, disturb and offend is not an unpleasant after‑effect, but an integral part of human rights and of the right to freedom of expression.

What we need, then, if we want to strengthen free speech and curb hate speech, or even uncomfortable speech, is first of all more speech, as well as a range of non‑legal measures by states, as exemplified in much of the work of UNESCO, for example, to strengthen freedom of expression. Censorship benefits the status quo and not people’s empowerment.

While the powerless are called on to be responsible and accountable, unfortunately it has become clear in recent times that we cannot have the same expectation of governments and businesses, as their lack of commitment — or so it seems from users’ perspective at least — to a safe and secure Internet indicates.

Indeed, the narrative of cybersecurity mixes together a number of debates. It goes from cybercrime (including spam and cyber pornography) over critical Internet infrastructure to national security. And in the context of the latter, surveillance is often upheld as a solution. But surveillance and security actually frequently contradict each other, as surveillance exploits the very vulnerabilities that should be patched to make the Internet secure.

By not drawing on the human rights framework, security debates do little to further security from the perspective of users and gives strongly the impression that the debate is not really about security, but about control, in particular control of people.

How do we then move forward if safety is really a concern? First of all, to protect the public interest, it is crucial that human rights are protected in their interconnections. This is what is needed before we move to the framework of cyber ethics.

In addition, multistakeholderism is essential as well. This is not a matter of ethics but a matter of democracy. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a strong push in Internet governance to move towards more multilateralism and greater government interference in the governance of the Internet, often guided by traditional ideas of sovereignty. But the Internet is a global network, it’s not a national one, and it is often owned by private actors, not by governments, which makes the architecture of the Internet and the environment very different from what we are used to offline.

Sovereignty will continue to be relevant, but it has to be reimagined. Sovereignty as it predates the Internet cannot continue to exist. We have to be aware of the interconnections between states as much as between rights, and of the impacts decisions in one country have on people in another.

The different architecture of the Internet also means that checks and balances as we know them in the offline world do not work anymore. It is not by keeping actors separate that we achieve balance, but by bringing them together in governance, and that’s where multistakeholderism comes in.

As the Tunis Agenda emphasizes, Internet governance is crucially about shared decision‑making. Shared decision-making is thus a pivotal aspect of multistakeholderism: it is not just about consultation. It is about joint participation and decision‑making at every step of the process. This also means we cannot simply have one body at the UN or elsewhere, or one process to resolve all Internet related problems. What we require is a multitude of processes, the exact form of which is to be determined by the issue or the problem at hand.

How, then, to move forward on the important topic of this meeting? Human rights and multistakeholderism will best be linked together to do so, so that we can move from the Internet to an Equinet. I look forward to continuing the conversations with you on that topic this week. Thank you.