2012-02-29

My Statement in the UN HRC re. Digital Rights

Today i delivered an oral intervention in the UN Human Rights Council, during a panel on Internet Freedoms. It was moderated by: Mr. Riz Khan, Al Jazeera. Opening statement by: Ms. Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights. Panellists: Mr. Carl Bildt, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden - Mr. Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression - Ms.Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive Director, Association for Progressive Communications, South Africa - Mr. Carlos Afonso, Executive Director, Instituto Nupef, Brazil - Mr. William Echikson, Head of Free Expression, External Relations, Communications and Public Affairs, Google and Ms. Ms. Hesti Armiwulan, Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia. The intervention:



Thank you Mr. Moderator,

This intervention is made on behalf of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.  Last year, amid widespread protests in Egypt, a group of citizens managed to force their way into buildings of the Ministry of Interior – a branch of the government notorious for brutal tactics employed to preserve the former Mubarak regime. In one of these buildings, a cache of documents were found (which you can now access on the web) that detailed a series of meetings between officials of the Interior Ministry and the local heads of large multi-national telecommunications and internet companies operating in Egypt. In one such meeting at the end of 2010, the discussions included how to cut off internet access in a single city and in several cities, blocking particular websites, and obtaining personal information. In another meeting at the beginning of 2011, digital Spy-ware purchased from a private company was discussed, including its ability to tap into online accounts, plant spy files on computers that would allow one to control the computer, and other highly invasive abilities. Here were well-know private companies planning repression with a government body famous for committing severe rights violations.  

A couple months later all of the capabilities that private companies jointly developed with the Interior Ministry were employed on a country wide scale in an attempt to undermine mass democratic protests.  Sequential crackdown on communication platforms, including kill-switch, happened from 25 January till 5 February. 

This story demonstrates how private companies operating in a human rights vacuum and without any reference to the legality and morality of the purposes of those with which they cooperate have become indispensable partners of repressive governments enabling them to carry out wide-spread human rights violations through undue manipulation of the multi-media realm. 

All of this has been done in a manner that lacks transparency, accountability, and basic guarantees of due process. In many instances the private companies themselves have violated their own user agreements, but with little consequence since no sufficient external or multi-national ombudsman exist to ensure that these companies apply basic human rights standards.  While social media has been a useful tool for democracy promotion, it has also shown great potential as a tool of large-scale oppression.

It is a disturbing reality, and this Council and the private sector must begin to address it urgently. One of the first ways this could be addressed is through ensuring that human rights norms are translated into very clear and universal rules that all internet and telecommunication companies should adhere to at all times in all places.  Such standards have been developed by organizations and individuals and include such simple rules as:

• Minimize the amount of information required by online companies, and give users access and control to what personal information companies have and own. 

• No cutting off of communications systems should be permitted or planned at anytime, for any reason.

It is time that internet and phone companies begin to operate with the same degree of transparency, accountability, and fairness that we demand of governments, especially given that they often act in a manner that makes them active partners in repressive government polices and attacks against those who struggle for human rights and democracy.

Thank you Mr. Moderator.

Human Rights Council – 19th Session
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
Oral Intervention – Panel on Freedom of Expression on the Internet
29 February, 2012

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