IGF 2011: Perspectives on ICT Exportation and Human Rights


During the last week of September, the sixth Internet Governance Forum took place in Nairobi, Kenya, under the auspices of the United Nations. IGF is the main outcome of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and should be seen as an innovative knowledge-sharing platform for Internet-governance related discussions.

During this four-day-long forum, various stakeholders – representing governments, international organizations, the private sector, civil society and academia – had the opportunity to meet up and discuss a number of intriguing issues on an equal footing. One of the IGF workshops, in which I had the pleasure of being a panelist on behalf of BetterICT, dealt with ICT exportation under the section Security Openness and Privacy: more particularly, Workshop 77 analyzed how internet technology is exported and how this affects Human Rights. Indeed, European and North-American ICT producers often supply foreign countries, where authoritarian regimes may use these technologies for some controversial purposes, such as censorship and network surveillance.

In order to diversify their market, penetrating in new geographical areas, ICT exporters have to comply with domestic legislation. The issue is that these legislations may diverge from international law, restraining some human rights such as privacy and freedom of expression.

ICTs are neutral tools: their dual-use nature allows extremely different usages. In fact, surveillance ICTs can be used to track cyber-criminals in rule-of-law-based Countries or to help authoritarian regimes to “smoke out” and arrest – and eventually torture – political dissidents. One can fairly assert that, by virtue of their neutral nature, exported ICTs cannot be considered as harmful or dangerous per se and they keep on making blurrier the line between law enforcement and repression.

Exporting ICTs is a perfectly legal activity, but it doesn’t seem to this author that supplying authoritarian regimes with surveillance tools can be defined as ethical behavior. Hence, the issue is: are there any solutions in order to design a new path for an ethical ICT exportation?

In the view of BetterICT, the ethical dimension of ICT plays a pivotal role, and should orient the entire Internet governance. Moreover, while drafting the Geneva Declaration of principles, one of the fundamental documents that lead to the creation of the Internet Governance Forum, WSIS participants acknowledged “the importance of ethics for the Information Society” arguing that the information society “should foster justice, and the dignity and worth of the human person” and they reiterated their commitment to an ethical use of ICTs in the Tunis Agenda (paragraph 43), the very same document that instituted the IGF. Therefore, ethics should be placed at the core of Internet governance and guide the elaboration of regulation and policy making.

During the last years, a number of self-regulation tools have been elaborated in order to cope with the private sector’s responsibilities deriving from ICT exportation. Global Network Initiative, for instance, has supported the development of a list of ten Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy, merging the standpoints expressed by companies, investors, civil society organizations and academics. These Principles are “based on internationally recognized laws and standards for human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights”.

Despite the high level and importance of the principles, they are still a non-binding tool of self-regulation that cannot be enforced. Therefore, a different and more effective approach should be envisaged and a legal framework aimed at making corporations more accountable should be conceived.

The USA and the European Union seem to have understood this need. In fact, two considerable initiatives have been taken in order to frame ICT exportation: in May 2009, the US Congress presented the Global On-line Freedom Act, a bill that aims to “prevent United States businesses from cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance”; and, on September 27th, the European Parliament voted “to bar overseas sales of systems that monitor phone calls and text messages, or provide targeted Internet surveillance, if they are used to violate democratic principles, human rights or freedom of speech”.

Fostering a democratic and ethic Internet is a concerted endeavor. As Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament said “it depends on the goodwill of companies to be transparent and the goodwill of countries to monitor them”.

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