In the United States, under two successive administrations of both parties, laws have been passed, policies implemented and corporate practices evolved that make it much easier for government agencies to track and access citizens’ private digital communications – stored ‘in the cloud’ on corporate servers or transmitted through privately operated internet and wireless services – than it is for agents to search or carry out surveillance of our physical homes, offices, vehicles and mail.
In the internet age, it is inevitable that corporations and government agencies will have access to detailed information about people’s lives. We willingly share personal information with companies for the convenience of using their products. We accept that a certain amount of surveillance is necessary in order to protect innocent people from crime and terror. But Americans have failed to address the resulting dilemma: how do we prevent the abuse of power that we have willingly delegated to government and companies in exchange for security and convenience?
Answering this question is critical not only for the future of American democracy but for democracy and human rights around the world as people everywhere – from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park – grow ever more dependent on the internet and mobile phones for organising protests and demanding political change. An important first step is the commitment by everyone who exercises power on and through the internet to respect and uphold the human rights of internet users.
National commitment: Civil liberties, human rights and privacy organisations should be included in the process of drafting all legislation, involving internet regulation, from an early stage. Laws that empower the executive branch to access citizens’ private communications or restrict access to information without sufficient legislative and judicial oversight should be revised.
Diplomatic commitment: Democratic governments should make a clear commitment to uphold internet users’ free expression and privacy rights in theirtrade, intellectual property and law enforcement treaties. Oversight mechanisms should be created with the heavy involvement of global civil society.
Corporate commitment: All companies in the information communications technology (ICT) sector should commit to uphold basic principles of free expression and privacy for their users, and agree to be held independently accountable to their commitments. They can most easily do both of these things by joining the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder initiative dedicated to promoting core standards of free expression and privacy in the ICT sector.
Shared commitment to transparency and accountability: All companies should be required to report regularly and publicly on how content is deleted or blocked, under what circumstances and at whose behest. Companies should also be required to report publicly and clearly on how they gather and retain user information, and how they share that information both with government and other companies.
Public commitment to engagement and vigilance: Citizens of democracies need to understand that the internet is a politically contested space. We need to pay attention to who is exerting power on our digital lives and fight to defend our rights just as many of us have grown accustomed to doing in our physical towns, cities and nations. That means we should exercise our voice and our power as customers and users, to push companies whose services we depend on to respect our rights. As investors, we can choose to support those parts of the industry which are making clear commitments and efforts to support free expression and privacy. As voters, we must make clear to our elected representatives that we are watching them, and will punish them at the ballot box if they pass laws that could constrict our right to free expression and assembly online.
Whether the internet evolves in a manner that is compatible with democracy in the long run is not pre-determined. It depends on the choices and actions of millions of internet users, along with the engineers, programmers and legislators who shape what people can or cannot do in cyberspace. It is time for the world’s democracies at least – and their citizens – to make and demand core commitments to human rights on the internet.