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Rights-based Principles for the Internet: Are These Enough?

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

The Internet Rights and Principles Coalition - a group formed out of the Internet Governance Forum - has been working for many months to develop rights-based principles to govern the Internet. Those draft principles are now out, and can be found here. They are duplicated below (excerpted from the Access website):

The Internet offers unprecedented opportunities for the realization of human rights, and plays an increasingly important role in our everyday lives. It is therefore essential that all actors, both public and private, respect and protect human rights on the Internet. Steps must also be taken to ensure that the Internet operates and evolves in ways that fulfill human rights to the greatest extent possible. To help realize this vision of a rights-based Internet environment, the 10 Rights and Principles are:

Universality and Equality
All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights, which must be respected, protected and fulfilled in the online environment.

Rights and Social Justice
The Internet is a space for the promotion, protection and fulfilment of human rights and the advancement of social justice. Everyone has the duty to respect the human rights of all others in the online environment.

Everyone has an equal right to access and use a secure and open Internet.

Expression and Association
Everyone has the right to seek, receive, and impart information freely on the Internet without censorship or other interference. Everyone also has the right to associate freely through and on the Internet, for social, political, cultural or other purposes.

Privacy and Data Protection
Everyone has the right to privacy online. This includes freedom from surveillance, the right to use encryption, and the right to online anonymity. Everyone also has the right to data protection, including control over personal data collection, retention, processing, disposal and disclosure.

Life, Liberty and Security
The rights to life, liberty, and security must be respected, protected and fulfilled online. These rights must not be infringed upon, or used to infringe other rights, in the online environment.

Cultural and linguistic diversity on the Internet must be promoted, and technical and policy innovation should be encouraged to facilitate plurality of expression.

Network Equality
Everyone shall have universal and open access to the Internet’s content, free from discriminatory prioritisation, filtering or traffic control on commercial, political or other grounds.

Standards and Regulation
The Internet’s architecture, communication systems, and document and data formats shall be based on open standards that ensure complete interoperability, inclusion and equal opportunity for all.

Human rights and social justice must form the legal and normative foundations upon which the Internet operates and is governed. This shall happen in a transparent and multilateral manner, based on principles of openness, inclusive participation and accountability.


My reaction to the principles is mixed. On the one hand I am a firm supporter of freedom of expression on the Internet and believe that much more must be done - by both governments and the private sector - to protect this fundamental value. (I'm also involved with other multistakeholder efforts to preserve an open Internet.) On the other, I can't help but think that these principles, as laudable as the intention may be, are somewhat divorced from the reality of the Internet, a reality that is almost completely shaped by government policy and corporate practices. As a launching point for discussion - which is no doubt how they are intended - they are a useful tool. But what would be even more helpful, even as a discussion-starter, would be a practical roadmap for getting from the current Internet to the one envisioned by the drafters of these principles. Statements of lofty principle can be useful in setting ideals. But to genuinely promote freedom of expression on the Internet (rather than just voice it as a goal), civil society needs to engage with the companies who create and run its architecture and applications, as well as the governments who frequently regulate its use. Moreover, the smaller subset of Internet-rights-oriented civil society organizations must reach out to and engage the broader public, because shifting public opinion on these issues will also be crucial. Otherwise, the principles will remain just that, untethered to the reality that most users of the Internet experience.


Photo Credit: © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank (on Flickr)

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Submitted by Dixie on
Hi - I just saw your blog spot. The 10 Internet Rights and Principles are not so much about launching a discussion. Rather following much (much!) discussion, the IRP created a Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet - a much longer document which gives far more detail about how human rights apply to the internet. You can see it here: This document was an attempt to distill that document down into ten key principles for campaigning and advocacy. However, I fully agree with you - it's one thing defining how you want the internet to be governed, it's another thing ensuring that happens in reality, and that is an urgent challenge.

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