Opposition to the Silicon Valley Principles

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Here’s a paper I did in response to the conference to draft the Silicon Valley Principles — the aptly-named “rightscon”.

1. My recommendation is to reject the Silicon Valley Principles completely as they are:

a) insufficiently grounded in a rights-based approach rooted in national and international rights-protecting institutions, namely courts and UN treaty bodies;

b) based on the UN business principles which aren’t binding, have faced their own controversies, and were decided for a different purpose, namely to regulate capitalist trans-national corporations by actors interested in social justice;

c) unnecessary, as there are perfectly good existing international covenants, norms and jurisprudence in UN treaty bodies on freedom of expression, as well as US Constitutional law and Supreme Court decisions to protect freedom of speech;

d) potentially damaging, as the effort to negotiate them in the UN multilateral setting in particular could lead to endless wrangles such as we’ve seen over the “defamation of religion” (or historically, the “new world information order” debates at UNESCO). Only recently has the “defamation of religion” controversy been settled at the UN Human Rights Council, ending the cover for states misusing “blasphemy laws” to control speech, with Resolution 16/18. This will not hold for long if “the Internet as a human right” begins to strain that essentially fragile consensus;

e) the chief motivation for big Internet technology companies in Silicon Valley is unrelated to human rights, but reflects their own business interests. Indeed, their lobbyists deliberately confuse the issues, and undermine them in conscious efforts to misleadingly convert issues of corporate power, intellectual property rights and prosecution of crime into “freedom of expression issues”.

Essentially, the flaw at the heart of these principles is this: unlike groups such as Human Rights Watch which monitor existing international norms set by states and international institutions such as the UN treaty bodies, and call on states to abide by these existing norms, Silicon Valley is saying to us: “let us engineers decide for you”. This technologist-centric approach is endorsed as much by the nonprofit group Access, which promotes “Internet access as a human right” as it is by Vincent Cerf of Google, who repudiates the “human right to Internet connection” by citing the ostensibly good stewardship of technology companies.

2. The chief threats to the Internet, as can be seen from the monitoring and reporting of groups like Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House come from authoritarian governments that restrict free access to the Internet through blocking sites, monitoring users, intimidation, and even physical assaults as well as sentencing and imprisonment under restrictive laws about “defamation of the state” or “insulting the honor and dignity of the nation” or “extremism” or “threat to national security”. In most cases, legislative and technical barriers are caused by states, not by corporations, or if they do involve IT corporations, they are state-owned or state-controlled. Here to read more.

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