Human rights must trump internet engineering, says Council of Europe

The Council of Europe has proposed international rules to govern the internet and insisted human rights must be at the fore.

The Council of Europe has proposed international rules to govern the internet and insisted human rights must be at the fore.

The draft rules, which could lead to a treaty to protect the international flows of information comparable to maritime rules protecting shipping lanes, would seek to clarify in law the way different countries depend on one another for the internet.

Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, deputy secretary general of the Council of Europe (CoE), told a conference in Strasbourg on Monday that the internet should be governed by international rules that protect freedom of expression across borders as well as the security of critical infrastructure.

"We cannot simply sit and wait for some hidden force governing this new ecology to achieve a self-balance that will miraculously satisfy all our needs and expectations," she said in reference to those who claimed the market should be left to regulate the net.

Technical detail and human rights

The CoE presented the conference with draft rules inspired by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights - the right to freedom of expression - and drafted for two years by a committee of academics and civil servants from institutions in Austria, France, Germany, Russia and Switzerland.

Jan Malinowski, policy lead for the CoE initiative, told Computer Weekly: "In terms of fundamental rights, of access to information, of freedom of expression, of participation in democracy, you need to keep the internet running today. The rest can wait.

"The technical aspect cannot be separated from human rights. We hear the argument that there is a clear distinction between [them]. I don't believe there is such a big gap. Technical decisions impact human rights; there consequently has to be a policy that ensures the fundamentals are preserved while working out the technical solutions."

The rules would make architects answerable to human rights law. But in a radical departure for treaties, engineers may be brought into the fold and given a say over its drafting.

The CoE is seeking to emulate the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance, which involves state, private and civil stakeholders, in creating international rules for internet governance. Malinowski proposed a process so unconventionally fluid that its outcome could not be determined.

All he could say for sure was the CoE would encourage as wide participation as possible towards an international system to protect the internet. He mooted private sector agreements such as those already used for corporate social responsibility.

Cross-border internet governance

The Internet Engineering Task Force, the body of engineers who work on the internet architecture, has recently been in heated debate over the question of whether it would unjustifiably politicise its work by building better privacy protections into its protocols.

The problem of cross-border internet governance has been addressed in recent months by UK foreign secretary William Hague and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Brazil has led the way by introducing internet governance rules. But the US has yet to back the European effort.

The rules would seek to formalise the systems of mutual support which has helped the internet bounce back from its problems. Boer-Buquicchio used the example of a woman accidentally shutting the internet off for five hours a fortnight ago after putting a spade through a cable in the ground. The infamous cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 was suppressed by an unorchestrated defence operation mounted by internet engineers around the world.

More difficult problems have been raised by plans in the UK to censor traffic and deny websites the right to operate, and the Egyptian government's internet blocking as a means of repression during the recent uprising.

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