The United Nations argues people should enjoy the same basic rights online as off, prompting controversy over the necessity for worldwide Internet freedom.
The U.N. resolution for the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet upholds “the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development.” It secured support from 30 of the organization’s 47 Human Rights Council members, including the U.S., Tunisia and Sweden.
“It’s the first-ever U.N. resolution affirming that human rights in the digital realm must be protected and promoted to the same extent and with the same commitment as human rights in the physical world,” said U.S. ambassador Eileen Donahoe.
Growing Momentum for Internet Freedom
The U.N. bill echoes the pending U.S. “digital bill of rights,” a bipartisan effort to uphold “equality, privacy, sharing and property” online. The Obama administration also supports a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which would give citizens greater control over their online information.
And the “Declaration of Internet Freedom,” reacting to government monitoring and overzealous copyright laws, maintains an uncensored Internet is vital to economic and social growth is also gaining momentum.
These proposals reflect growing popular support for online rights in the U.S., a sentiment also shared by many European countries.
In Sweden and Germany, for example, the Pirate Party seeks to protect file-sharing as a legitimate expression of Internet freedom, while others grapple with the Internet’s downside.
Opponents Mount Attack
On the other hand, China, Russia and India, along with Cuba, argue an open Internet may be both dangerous and impossible to achieve.
“We believe that the free flow of information on the Internet and the safe flow of information on the Internet are mutually dependent,” Chinese envoy Xia Jingge said in response to the U.N. resolution. “As the Internet develops rapidly, online gambling, pornography, violence, fraud and hacking are increasing its threat to the legal rights of society and the public.”
China continues to censor its Internet over objections from human rights advocates and web-based companies like Google, which nearly accused the Chinese government of hacking Gmail accounts last year.
India shares China’s views about Internet freedom, choosing to preserve traditional values by restricting offensive online content, but not without consequences. India recently experienced backlash from Anonymous hackers after it darkened file-sharing websites like The Pirate Bay and Vimeo.
Iran and countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia censor content through a political and religious lens, prohibiting remarks against Islam or the reigning party in power. And Thailand seeks to uphold its traditions by punishing online insults against the royal family, even jailing website owners for hosting their guests’ illegal comments.
As long as traditional ways of life continue to clash with modern technology and create headaches for governments, the U.N. resolution will likely attract both fierce supporters and detractors.
Cuba’s diplomat Juan Antonio Quintanilla, however, rose above this controversy to introduce a third viewpoint on the U.N. measure.
The Cuban pointed out only about a third of the world’s population has access to this form of technology, and thought the law should address issues about who really controls the Internet.
The bill doesn’t include anything about Internet governance, Quintanilla said, “when we all know that this tool is controlled by a single country globally and this is something which hampers free access to this very important tool.”
Quintanilla refers to the U.S., which hosts the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN sets regulatory standards for international Internet conduct, making it one of the web’s most powerful organizations, but this could change.
His statement could hint at the upcoming U.N. meeting may in December, when delegates are to vote on whether its International Telecommunications Union should gain more power over the Internet instead.
Should the ITU move to control online traffic, it may hamper freedom of speech in authoritarian regimes, according to U.S. officials.
“Centralized control would threaten the ability of the world’s citizens to freely connect and express themselves by placing decision-making power in the hands of global leaders some of whom inevitably will have ambiguous attitudes about the value of free speech,” said U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philip Verveer.
The U.N. may find itself at odds with its own human rights proclamation in six months, should ITU detractors push the organization to forego its own interests in favor of online freedom. The coming vote will likely add an interesting twist to the continuing debate over online freedom.