SIMS 290-9, continued (the February edition)
Over the last few weeks of class, we have read some pretty esoteric material, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (again with the pithy titles), which commits 167 countries to protect certain fundamental human rights. We also read the Siracusa and Johannesburg Principles, which prescribe limits on such rights in specified circumstances. For example, one’s right to privacy might be curtailed when balanced against matters of national security or for the protection of public health, safety or morals (yes, the problematically expansive exception for “public morals”).
Unless you work for the UN Human Rights Committee or the International Court of Justice, these are not exactly documents kept at your fingertips. So, a fair question -- which at least one student has asked already -- is “why does this matter to anyone in the real world?”
Indeed, it isn’t even clear what these documents mean to the governments who claim to support them. While the parties to the ICCPR make high-level commitments to protect human rights, many of these states filed reservations or other declarations that limit their effect. For example, the US signed the ICCPR in 1977, but only ratified it in 1992 with limitations on its application to capital punishment, cruel and inhuman treatment, detention and other provisions that, on the whole, mean the commitments have little domestic effect.
Moreover, even if these parties were bound wholly to the ICCPR, there is at best weak enforcement by the international community. Most countries have not ratified the protocol that permits individuals to bring a complaint against a state. More than half of the parties (including the US) have failed to submit reports on the status of human rights in their countries, as required by the treaty. [Here’s a great link to track the status of the ICCPR: http://www.ccprcentre.org/en/status-of-ratification
Perhaps the most damning fact about the ICCPR is its list of signatories. Among those countries that have pledged to respect fundamental human rights -- including the rights to freedom of expression and privacy -- are China (limiting its obligation to Hong Kong and Macao only), Colombia, Iran, Russia, Syria, Turkey and Vietnam. Really?
So, again, what exactly is the point?
For better or worse, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR may be as close to an international consensus on fundamental rights as we ever attain. And in the uncertain terrain of the global Internet, we desperately need a common framework to continue forward.
As we saw in Tunisia and Egypt, in the Wikileaks scandal and the fight over RIM’s encrypted communications, a moment of crisis is the wrong time to try to make principled decisions about what people can say or what they can keep private. In those moments, every controversial act looks like it falls within an exception to the fundamental rights to free expression and privacy. In those moments, government overreach must be met by a public who are well-versed in their rights and prepared to hold those in power accountable.
However we judge the effectiveness of the ICCPR among nation states, the treaty and its related commentaries provide a common vocabulary and value framework for discussing human rights in information technologies. The rights at the heart of the networked world -- free expression and privacy -- are fundamental and should only be compromised in narrow circumstances. As technologists, policy makers and consumers, the ICCPR gives us a map for evaluating everything from hardware to cloud-based applications and a foundation for designing technologies for better outcomes.
For example, we know that Cisco’s mirror routers and Blue Coat’s filtering appliances are used by authoritarian governments to censor online content in places like China, Syria and Burma. These technologies may well have benign purposes, but the repressive uses are undisputed. If you are an engineer designing a technology that filters or surveils -- a technology that limits the availability of content or privacy by its very function -- then a human rights inquiry would suggest a design or a distribution plan that might minimize bad uses.
A similar -- but even more complex -- analysis can be applied to application and platform providers like YouTube, FaceBook and Twitter. There are values embedded in these free, open platforms -- free expression, access to information and association. From a human rights perspective, then, we can make design, policy and business decisions about why and how to limit them.
Neither the questions nor the decisions here are simple. What is Twitter’s obligation when a tweet violates the law in one country but a citizen’s free speech rights in another? On what basis does Facebook provide user data to government authorities around the world? Putting aside legal constraints for the moment, what are the ethical considerations for Google (or Target or Equifax for that matter) handling Big Data?
It would be naive and perhaps even misguided to suggest that large-scale consumer technologies should be built in service of human rights. But it is fair to ask companies to consider human rights in the products they launch to the world. It is good corporate responsibility and good business.
And, besides, who else is there to ask?