By Emily Parker

Experts from around the world met in Tunis today to address the difficult relationship between online security and the preservation of human rights. The panel discussion came at the beginning of the two-day Freedom Online 2013 conference hosted by Tunisia.

The panel, at the Tunis Sheraton Hotel, was entitled Cyber Security and Human Rights.” The two-hour discussion included experts hailing from India, Canada, Bosnia, and Sweden.

The discussion centered around the relationship between cyber security and human rights. Speakers Anja Kovacs of the Internet of Democracy Project, Robert Guerra of Citizen Lab, Dunja Mijatović of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Johan Hallenborg of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, discussed the tension between maintaining security (whether national or personal) and upholding international human rights standards.

Panelists were in agreement that human rights and cyber security concerns need not be mutually exclusive.

We cannot enjoy our freedoms without security,” Johan Hallenborg explained.

By pitting human rights concerns against security, we may find ourselves with neither rights, nor security,” Dunja Mijatović added.

At the same time, Anja Kovacs urged the need for a a narrower definition of what we refer to as cyber security.”

We need far greater definitional clarity,” she said. Cyber security has become the catch-all category for everything that might be wrong with the Internet.”

She explained that fraud, child pornography, terrorism, and other broadly connected issues tend to be lumped together under the security umbrella, yet the nature of these concerns varies greatly.

As a result, Kovacs alleged that fears concerning internet security become magnified and often blown out of proportion. She emphasized the need for evaluating security threats on a case-by-case basis and to respond appropriately.

We see measures that don’t necessarily need to be taken,” she stated. Governments use the bogey’ of cyber crime and security to justify all kinds of actions [infringing on human rights] without making clear how much of a threat there really is and if responses are both necessary and proportionate.”

As a result, Guerra urged the need to procure independent data analyzing security threats.

If we don’t realize what the real threats are, we will make wrong assumptions, and we will have a false sense of security,” he explained.

Panelists also agreed on the need for governments to cooperate internationally to ensure that maintaining security does not come at the expense of personal human rights.

There have been efforts within international organizations and civil society, but what is missing is understanding and a political will,” Mijatović stated.

Yet, the question of how to best encourage this international coordination remained unresolved during the panel.

It might be the time to develop a global body to deal with these issues,” Kovacs suggested.

At the same time, she expressed that creating such a body might be a naïve” aspiration, given that governments across the globe possess different interests, values, and priorities.

Guerra also addressed the role of regional diversity in affecting frameworks and attitudes towards internet freedoms and security.

For a long time, western countries have driven standards [of internet security] and have created norms and infrastructures,” Guerra expressed.

As demographics have shifted, however, Guerra explained that a majority of internet users now reside in the South and East, where other issues like religion play a more important role” than upholding human rights standards.

As a result, he claimed that we now pass through a critical moment that will determine the future form and content of the Internet.

If we don’t get it right now, the Internet as we have known it will be a dream that has long faded,” he asserted.

Guerra agreed that establishing a relationship between human rights and cyber security should be approached through an international framework. He added that, given historical precedent, such a task does not require starting from square one.

Let’s not forget that there are already international instruments” to regulate the relationship between human rights and cyber security, Guerra said. We don’t have to create new things.” He referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one such example.

Kovacs agreed, adding that not only governments need to be involved, but also other actors, such as businesses and civil society.

Governments, institutions, and actors – both domestically and internationally – must keep each other in check because they need each other,” she explained.

While the complex issues under discussion certainly were not solved at the conference, the forum was a unique opportunity to address these matters in a country where such a conversation would have been impossible prior to the January 2011 revolution.

Originally published in TunisiaLive.