The internet offers enormous opportunities for people around the world to exercise their human rights, from the right to free expression and association to — as has been demonstrated during the pandemic — the right of access to education. Increasingly, however, governments around the world are adopting regulatory measures that threaten the free flow of information and fragment the internet itself, often to further state interests in surveillance or to control political speech.
CDT recently joined others concerned about this trend in a statement that calls on countries to ensure that the internet remains open, interconnected, and interoperable. When a country adopts a policy that limits what users in-country can see and do on the internet, providers who accommodate that policy deliver a more limited internet experience in that country — and with it, a limited ability to enjoy rights. For example, Russia’s data localization law, which requires companies to store a copy of Russians’ data in Russia, was adopted in part to ensure that Russian authorities could gain access to the contents of user communications, a move that puts user privacy at risk and has a chilling effect on user speech. The “Great Firewall of China” was put in place, in large part, to control dissent and the free flow of information in China. These measures must be resisted because they fragment the internet and diminish human rights.
Worldwide adoption of strong data protection rules and safeguards against surveillance can also help prevent further internet fragmentation and ensure stronger human rights protection. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is designed to safeguard the data protection rights of Europeans, for example, which it does in part by limiting the flow of Europeans’ data to countries with weak data protection regimes. Because data protection rules vary so much globally, measures like the GDPR that aim to raise human rights standards can inadvertently result in fragmenting the internet. If other countries do not raise their standards, such measures can force companies to localize data due to inability to transfer it to countries with weak data protection rules, diminishing their ability to offer the same digital experience to all users — including the full enjoyment of many rights that are contingent on internet usage on a global basis.
Measures to increase human rights should not be met by resistance, but by global adoption: to promote the free flow of information across borders, countries should respond to the GDPR by adopting data protection and surveillance rules that meet international human rights standards.
Of course, countries sometimes adopt measures that lead to fragmentation while professing to have noble goals such as advancing cybersecurity or protecting children, but use those measures to diminish privacy and free expression rights. As a result, the line between beneficial and detrimental measures is often unclear, and requires a holistic evaluation of the human rights situation in the relevant country.
Recognizing these trends and challenges, CDT has joined global human rights organizations including Derechos Digitales, Freedom House, and the Paradigm Initiative; global tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft; and internet luminaries including Vint Cerf, in a statement directed primarily at United Nations (UN) officials.
It calls on them to encourage UN member states to resist internet fragmentation by adopting measures to promote human rights, the global free flow of information, connectivity to the internet, and meaningful participation of people from the global south, women, and other traditionally underrepresented voices in internet policymaking.
UK-based Global Partners Digital (GPD) spearheaded the 10-month effort to develop the statement. We look forward to working with GPD and the other signatories to resist internet fragmentation by promoting human rights-compliant policies.