CDT Addresses the United Nations General Assembly and Counter-Terrorism Advisor

Written by Rita Cant

At a time when governments around the world are cracking down on the Internet, the Center for Democracy & Technology is fighting to save a place at the table for civil society in global Internet governance.

This week, two of CDT’s experts appeared before key bodies of the United Nations (UN) dealing with critical issues for the future Internet. Matthew Shears, director of the Global Internet Policy and Human Rights Project, addressed the UN General Assembly on progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) review. And Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at CDT, spoke to the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate on the risks to the human rights of Internet users as governments seek to find appropriate responses to “extremist” content online.

“We have a clear of mission – that of realizing a knowledge society and substantively contributing to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” Shears said to the General Assembly, urging them to ensure strong linkages between the WSIS and broader development-oriented policy. But, he added, “we are not going to be able to do this unless we work together, unless we innovate in terms of solutions, policies and partnerships, and unless we recognize the importance of empowering individuals and communities so that they too can contribute to achieving these goals.”

Shears drew attention to the focus on human rights in the final document of the WSIS review. With the focus in the WSIS process on creating enabling policy environments for ensuring that information and communications technologies contribute to development, he noted, “Empowerment comes in different ways. It is not just through connectivity and access. Empowerment also comes through the realization of one’s human rights and one’s digital dignity.” As governments and other stakeholders work together to achieve the SDGs, a continued focus on the promotion of human rights is paramount.

Many governments see the Internet as a threat to their sovereignty and ability to maintain control over their citizens, so there are many incentives to create more government-only spaces for making decisions about Internet policy. Because the stakes are so high, it is crucial that governments recognize the importance of securing the knowledge society in a way that promotes and respects fundamental civil and human rights. This requires the inclusion of transparent, participatory, and multistakeholder models that incorporate diverse voices from NGOs and digital rights advocates, as well as experts in human rights and the technical underpinnings and business cases for the Internet.

Llansó, an expert on freedom of expression and Internet intermediaries, cautioned the Counter-Terrorism Committee advisory body about the dangers to human rights, security, and democratic processes posed by crackdowns on “extremist” content in response to the persistent threat of terrorist attacks.

“In developing approaches to respond to terrorist propaganda online, it is vital that we do so from within the framework of the essential protections for fundamental human rights,” Llansó said. Government programs such as the Internet Referral Unit, by which law enforcement officers seek removal of content from the Web by leveraging companies’ privately developed Terms of Service enforcement mechanisms, do not fare well under a human rights framework analysis. “The specific procedures and processes [of these programs] are often not communicated transparently with the public, and there has not been an evidence-based showing that they are necessary or effective.” The informal nature of these programs also circumvents key due process protections, including independent review of the censored content and opportunity for the affected speaker to seek a remedy.

Llansó also pointed to the need for greater transparency from Internet companies about how their content removal processes actually work. “If policymakers are engaging companies in discussions of their roles in responding to terrorist propaganda, even on a voluntary or public-private-partnership basis, we all, as interested and affected stakeholders, need to be able to discuss and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.”

Emphasizing the promise of efforts to support opportunities for counter-speech, Llansó concluded that “any policy aimed at seeking removal of content from the Internet should be developed in an open, transparent, participatory process and should be based on evidence of efficacy as well as informed by technical and practical capabilities, in order to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are protected and respected.”

Matthew’s testimony:

Emma’s testimony:

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