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Digital Freedoms and Human Rights in a Hyper-Connected World

Digital Freedoms and Human Rights in a Hyper-Connected World

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Discussion Papers > Human Rights & Internet Governance > Response: Marietje Schaake

Responses - Stakeholder Government & Parliament

Marietje Schaake, European Parliament

Marietje Schaake.jpg
Marietje Schaake is a member of the European Parliament for the Dutch Party Democrats 66 and the rapporteur for the first EU strategy on digital freedom in foreign policy. She is a member of the parliament’s Committees on Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Culture, Media and Education focussing on human rights and Europe's Digital Agenda.

A selection of different developments around technologies and human rights remind us of the vast scope of these emerging crossroads. A video clip posted online causes violent responses and a debate on whether or not to limit free speech. The EU and US are major exporters of digital arms, technologies used for the most serious repression of people.[1] Women in Egypt use apps on their mobile phones to map which neighbourhoods are safe and where attackers loom. Governments and telecom companies are fighting to regain control over people and markets online.[2]

Technologies and internet access have drastically changed our world, creating both exciting new opportunities and troubling developments. However, while technologies have changed a lot, universal human rights still need to be protected. The question is how to do this in a hyper-connected world.

According to our treaties, human rights need to be both protected and promoted by the EU.[3] But the EU can only credibly protect and promote digital freedom if we have our own house in order.[4] Through mainstreaming the role of technology in EU trade, security, development and foreign policies the EU can fully leverage its power and act as a global player. We need to more closely align interests and values, and put people first also when working on policies on the role of technologies.

Digital Freedom: the internet as enabler of human rights

Access to the internet is increasingly enabling fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and assembly, access to information, and also the documentation and sharing of human rights violations. Digital freedom is now a fundamental right - also recognised by the UN Human Rights Council[5] since last summer. This recognition came after the events in North Africa and the Middle East, although the WikiLeaks phenomenon must also be credited with awakening the world to the possibilities of technological developments.

Possibilities for people to assemble online and to access information are countered by new possibilities for authoritarian regimes, who seek to regain control over vocal and empowered populations with the help of the same technologies. Increasingly, mass-censorship, mass-surveillance, monitoring, tracking and tracing of dissidents are among the standard toolkits of repressive regimes. But in the eventual aftermath of the Syria crisis, the collection of evidence and dissemination of images of human rights violations can also contribute to the fight against impunity. Technologies are a double edged sword.

Double-edged sword

Many human rights violations now often include a technology component. Prisons are populated by dissidents confronted with their own (private) internet and mobile communications, compromised by the authorities. Iran continues the building of an electronic curtain, which eventually will cut off the Iranians from the World Wide Web through the creation of a ‘Halal internet’. China is similarly cutting its citizens off from the open internet by means of a mighty electronic firewall. In Syria, a monitoring centre was built for Assad’s Electronic Army, an arm of government now on both the EU and the US sanction lists.

Export restrictions

It is not only the parties accused of violating human rights in Syria and in Iran that are subject to restrictions, but also the tools with which these governments repress.[6] In January 2012 the EU restricted the export of ICT tools used for monitoring and tracking of Syrians online, intercepting mobile communications and censoring the internet. The campaign for sanctions of this kind has existed since the 2009 Green Movement in Iran. EU policies have been too slow in response to grave human rights violations. Additionally, by the time ‘ICT sanctions’ entered into force in January 2012, it had been almost two months since the EU Foreign Ministers announced them. The gap between announcement and implementation of sanctions should be narrowed so that those impacted cannot make alternative arrangements.[7] And there is more the EU should do to make sure policies are credible. We should not resort to ad-hoc measures, like in the case of Syria and Iran, but establish a comprehensive and general export regime for digital arms.


We learned that EU companies are still providing ICTs, technologies and operational support to repressive regimes and their (state) agencies and companies. Human rights defenders deserve EU support and, in any case, should not be targeted with tools and technologies developed and exported from within the EU. To prevent this from happening, we could implement an early warning mechanism that alerts to the export of technologies by European companies to regimes that systematically abuse human rights. By performing human rights impact assessments in the research and development phase of technological products, we can sooner identify the possible threats to human rights emerging from innovations and new products and services.

The context in which technologies are used is important here too. While building in a technical capacity for ‘lawful intercept’ is required by EU law, technologies with a technical ‘backdoor’ are used to permanently trace dissidents in countries where the rule of law does not exist. In a globally connected world, we should look more closely at the hands into which technologies fall. Companies should focus on implementing the ‘know-your-end-user’ principle, which is an element of corporate social responsibility.

Governments cannot operate alone in an online environment where companies own and develop most of the technologies and services. However, the primary responsibility to protect human rights lies with governments. Companies are only accountable to their shareholders if at all. Instead of over-regulating the internet or coming up with new laws, it is often a matter of ensuring competition, human rights and trade licenses are adequately applied.

Internet and Development

But beyond ensuring that technologies are used for liberation and not repression, we must consider inclusion in the discussions on access to internet. There is a digital divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ of internet access in the world today. The EU, as the world’s biggest provider of development assistance, has the opportunity to foster rapid progress. Building and installing basic ICT infrastructures to provide access to knowledge and information is one example of how this divide can be bridged.

The EU can enable (online) education in remote areas by developing and providing inexpensive wirelessly connected tablets. In the first critical hours after natural disasters or during humanitarian crisis, ad hoc emergency telephone and internet connections should be set up. ICTs can also be an essential asset for effective (citizen) election monitoring. The more important the use of ICTs becomes in developing counties, the more important it is to protect digital freedoms in a structural way. As the EU is investing in the process of democratic transition, it should also prioritise the enormous impact ICTs can have on creating more accountability and good governance. For instance, the mere act of posting the budget of a state online can reduce the opportunities for corruption.

Besides providing for direct investment and development through funding, the EU should share knowledge and make digital freedom a condition for aid. EU regulators or regulatory experts should engage with their counterparts in twinning projects to share knowledge. Embedding basic rights principles in new (media) legislation is an essential safeguard and should prevent undesired and restrictive laws such as Egypt’s current ban on encryption. New laws can have unintended effects on human rights that newly or first time-elected parliaments or governments are not necessarily aware of.


As people worldwide connect to online services, they transcend traditional borders of nation states, and defy traditional concepts of jurisdiction. New technologies and the internet have proven powerful forces of change, innovation and civil empowerment. But they also affect concepts of security and morality – domains traditionally closely linked to nation states and not yet adapted to the new global lack of borders.

We must critically assess the real impact of internet freedom policies to constantly monitor whether initial policies have the desired effect. To monitor and develop relevant policies, more knowledge about the impact of technologies in societies and on people across the world should be brought in at the government level. As technology is developing so rapidly, it is essential to promote structural collaboration between politicians, business and civil society. Indeed, such on-going equilibrium may be what best serves the open global internet, to everyone’s benefit. But just because the open internet has developed organically through a multi-stakeholder process does not alter the necessity of leadership to protect that very process and open nature.

The EU should take the lead in globally promoting and protecting digital freedoms.[8] Besides being the world’s largest trade block, the EU is also a community of values, which in turn should provide the basis for all our external actions. Only by synergising our trade, security and foreign policies, and by aligning our values and interests, can the EU fully leverage its power and act as a global player.

  1. http://www.bloomberg.com/video/79229672-mep-discusses-suppressive-use-of-technology-oct-31.html
  2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marietje-schaake/stop-balkanizing-the-internet_b_1661164.html
  3. Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union.
  4. http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/clinton-and-rosenthal-should-practice-what-they-preace
  5. http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/G12/153/25/PDF/G1215325.pdf?OpenElement
  6. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+OQ+O-2011-000294+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN&language=EN
  7. http://www.marietjeschaake.eu/2012/07/blog-the-empty-reality-of-eu-syria-sanctions/
  8. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//NONSGML+COMPARL+PE-491.252+01+DOC+PDF+V0//EN&language=EN


Gordon Süß
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