The importance of Access to Information in the lives of citizens received further affirmation from Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), as she canvassed for internet freedom that will make freedom of expression more meaningful for people around the world.
Ambassador Donahoe who spoke on Internet Freedom at the Center for Democracy and Technology said that the exercise of human rights is simply not possible without access to information. She said: “Freedom of expression – the most basic human right-necessarily entails the right to seek and receive information, as well as the right to communicate about it. The freedom to assemble or associate rests on a presumed ability to share and discuss information.”
Ambassador Donahoe also spoke on the critical role that access to information plays in the growth and sustenance of democracies around the world saying “widespread access to information is essential to the functioning of democracies – where the will of ‘the people’ – ideally a well-informed public, is the source of government legitimacy. Greater and greater access to information also turns out to be very threatening to governments that do not derive their power from the will of the people.”
She expressed delight over the remarkable way that technology has expanded the frontiers of the campaign for human rights through the increased flexibility with which information is made readily and speedily available throughout the world.
She said: “Technology has altered the mode, scope and scale of information accessibility for the public to such an extent that it has changed people’s expectation about their own freedom and ability to access information quickly and globally.
“The enhanced ability to access information has heightened people’s expectation with respect to government transparency and openness. This change in people’s expectations and behavior has put more power in the hands of the citizens and place enormous pressure on government, especially those that do not see the benefit of, or derive their power from, an informed and empowered public.”
Ambassador Donahoe also took time to reflect on the role of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) as an organ of the UN. According to her the HRC represented all that could be said to be wrong with the UN as an organization.
She said: “Just a few years ago the Council was viewed as the poster child for the UN dysfunction. Its flaws were serious and multiple, including consistent failure to speak out and act on chronic and urgent human rights crises, membership that included states with poor human rights records, a structural and persistent anti-Israel bias and political-regional block dynamics and obstructed action.”
Ambassador Donahoe made glowing remarks about the intervention from President Barrack Obama who reversed the US administrative policy of boycotting the Council to investing the US diplomatic energy to try to reform the Council from within, thereby infusing it with a level of dynamism hitherto unknown in the last few years.
The Ambassador also credited the Arab Spring and the uprising in North Africa as the wake-up call for the Council. “I believe changes in people’s expectations and aspirations, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab awakening, played an enormous role in triggering a corresponding awakening at the Human Rights Council, and in setting us on a new trajectory.”
She specifically mentioned a situation never heard of or implemented before in the Council when the Council decided on an urgent session on the worsening human rights conditions in Libya where the country is a sitting member of the Council. “That would have been politically impossible” she said .
Speaking on the relationship between the internet and human rights protection, Ambassador Donahoe explained that the internet would be the driving force of human rights protection in the 21st century.
She said: “We believe the internet has become ‘the’ landscape for human rights promotion and protection in the 21st century. Citizens around the world rely on the functionality and interoperability of the internet for the free flow of information essential to exercising their human rights”
She was however worried that some governments are yet to understand that there is great attraction in the protection of the digital space in the same way that countries seek protection for their physical borders as countries push for internal growth and empowerment for their citizens.
She noted that: “some governments have not yet fully internalized the basic premise that human rights must be protected online to the same extent as they are in the physical world. What we observe is a fairly strenuous effort by many governments in their own domestic spheres, as well as in international fora, to establish de facto a new, weaker standard for the protection of human rights online. Many governments seem to operate according to the incorrect supposition that the free flow of information can rightfully be.
“In fact, parallel to the growing expectations on the part of citizens to access information and connect globally, we see a corresponding change in government use of technology to restrict access to information and limit citizens’ abilities to connect with the global community, particularly by those governments that do not derive authority or power from a well-informed and connected public. Accordingly, such governments increasingly employ technology as a tool to censor content and to restrict global connections in new and more sophisticated ways, with devastating consequences for human rights.”
Other causes for worry that Ambassador Donahoe referred to are the conflicting visions for the role of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the global society, insisting that unless the conflicts are properly resolved it will create further crises for access to information.
“We are at a very worrying crossroad. The international community is faced with competing and incongruous visions of the role that information and communication technology should play in the global society. One vision embraces innovation, openness, and distributed multi-stakeholder authority and decision-making. The other puts priority on security and sovereignty, and envisions authority in the hands of states. The former model is consistent with democratic liberal values, whereas the later vision reinforces authoritarian tendencies.”
She was also concerned about the rising battle of the narrative that will dominate the international understanding of internet freedom between the liberal democratic and those on the sides of rights protection saying the consequences of losing control of the narrative would be devastating for freedom and human rights.
“If our vision of an open, interoperable, multi-stakeholder Internet is to prevail, and if we are to live up to our responsibilities as stewards of human rights, we must not only be vigilant and proactive in all multilateral settings, but we must also find more compelling arguments than we have to date.
“On the other hand, misleading arguments framed around issues of ‘fairness’ and ‘democracy’ have come into play, and are leading many governments down the wrong track. Specifically, there is a growing meme that ‘Internet governance’ needs to be more ‘democratic’,” she said.
She pointed out the inability of many governments to chart a course on internet freedom that protects and advances their interest. She called on governments to try and understand that although ICT has economic upsides and potentials to bring to their economies and people they must understand and put the basic infrastructure in place.
She said: “Unfortunately, in this context ‘democratic’ is code for moving away from the current decentralized multi-stakeholder model, which is perceived as being controlled by the U.S. or the ‘West’, to a system that would place a greater degree of control over the Internet in the hands of governments and inter governmental organizations.
“This argument may be superficially compelling with its appeal to “democracy,” but it is extremely insidious and dangerous in numerous ways. First, it misuses the term “democratic” in an almost Orwellian fashion. Greater “democracy” in this argument in fact means greater centralized control in the hands of governments and intergovernmental organizations, as opposed to control shared by a range of stakeholders in civil society, governments and the private sector.”
She concluded “this would be antithetical to the decentralized networked nature of the Internet. Further and ironically, the desired change would in fact give greater control over the Internet to some governments that do not embrace respect for freedom of expression and that lack recognized democratic practices at home vis-a-vis their own populations.”