Login Login



Wanted articles
Who is online?
Article tools

Incestuous Public-Private Relations and the Defense of Human Rights on the Internet

Incestuous Public-Private Relations and the Defense of Human Rights on the Internet

Jump to: navigation, search
Discussion Papers > Human Rights & Internet Governance > Response: Graciela Selaimen

Responses - Civil Society

Graciela Selaimen, Instituto Nupef, Brazil

It's understandable that citizens from countries that are widely recognized as non-democratic – and which are, in many cases, run by repressive governments –, when associating freedom of expression to democracy, fall in the simplification of analyzing the existent threats to freedom of expression and other human rights within the perspective of governmental censorship. However, the focus must be amplified. Today any defendant of human rights must make an effort to understand the multifaceted and complex scenario of violations to human rights in digital networked societies, taking a step further to overcome a historical approach that presents governments (especially in non-democratic countries) as the unique or main perpetrator of censorship and violations of rights.

Graciela Selaimen.jpg
Graciela Selaimen is a journalist and one of the coordinators of Instituto Nupef, working with the objective of fostering the participation of Latin-American NGOs and social movements in IG processes. She is editor of the Rets online magazine and the poliTICs magazine as well as a member of the PEIC and the Cibercult Laboratory.

In contemporary societies, either in totalitarian and repressive regimes or in the so called “occidental democracies”, the governmental bureaucracy aimed at controlling citizens has been automated. This digitalization of surveillance systems enables ever more agile and borderless monitoring, classification, prioritization, and judgment of individuals and social groups. Governmental institutions work hand in hand with the private sector to establish and consolidate their power by identifying, selecting, and tracking individuals' bodies, behaviors, and characteristics. Modern bureaucracy’s rigidity and impersonality (Max Weber’s feared “iron cage”), has given way to flexibility, decentralization and connectivity of control devices, where individual visibility plays a central role: being visible, in contemporary flows of information, means, on the one hand, creating sociabilities and exercising self-expression; on the other, being transparent to hegemonic powers, in order to be “considered” and to have access to spaces, goods and services[1].

In this perspective, we cannot imagine that “dictators are kept awake at night” fearing that their powers are being destroyed by the citizen's use of technology. Although some uses of technologies do represent a real challenge to the established powers, other uses and devices mean augmented possibilities to governments and other hegemonic powers of exercising control, including through violations of rights – a kind of control which is not limitedly exercised over a territory, but rather over people's behaviors, mobility, relations, over their subjectivity and conscience; it is a type of power that intervenes at the infinitesimal molecular level of a situation and of a subjectivity. It is a continuous, permanent power, which is not exercised under the light, transparency and visibility of the public space, but rather in the opacity of “private” relations [between institutions and individuals; between individuals themselves]. This is the realm in which states and private companies align with their control technologies, both at the level of populations and at the more molecular level, that of individual subjectivity.

According to Hardt and Negri (2001)[2], this regime dismantles old oppositions between public and private, obliterates and erases political and economic boundaries between states (and I would say it even erases the boundaries between what is today considered democratic and non-democratic), and seeks total elimination of risk by means of sophisticated surveillance and control technologies. The elimination of risk and better governance are the main argument used both by democratic states and private companies to implement systems, processes and policies aimed to exercise surveillance, discrimination, social sorting – in other words, to create spaces of knowledge in which the citizen/consumer becomes observable, measurable, quantifiable, and in short, known, in order to be controlled. Today, global governance mechanisms include not only agreements that are negotiated by governments, by the private sector and multilateral collaborations, but also modalities that are imposed by few and powerful players, including governments a handful of companies that enjoy monopoly or oligopoly power in global markets. It is in this scenario that the threats to human rights – both on the Internet and outside it – must be approached.

The aforementioned asymmetry of power and its concentration in the hands of a few countries whose agendas are not defined exclusively by national interests, but also by the interests of global monopolistic corporations, is a concern to many nations in the global South. The concentration of the telecommunications market in the Latin American region, for example, leads to crescent concern among civil society organizations, social movements and even some government officials in relation to violations of human rights by a market structure that has strong influence over legislators and regulators, prioritizing private interests of international companies over the public interest and people's rights. In a recent open consultation that was part of the preparatory process for the 5th Latin American and the Caribbean Preparatory Meeting for the Internet Governance Forum (http://www.lacigf.org), human rights was defined as a cross-cutting issue for the region. Specific themes such as online freedom of expression standards; censorship and surveillance; freedom of association online; privacy; a rights approach to ensure openness; and the increasing trend to monitor, block and filter online content were among the most pressing issues for the majority of the respondents.

The discussion on access to the Internet is also a relevant issue for Latin American countries. In this respect, it is necessary to question the statement that poverty is what prevents people's access to the Internet. What does prevent the universalization of access to digital networks is the lack of policies in the region to regulate a monopolized market not only by obligating telecommunication companies to offer quality services at feasible costs, but also by fostering governmental investment in offering public Internet access to the population. Southern countries do not need the assistance of developed nations. What is needed in the region are regulatory environments that challenge the power of private monopolies, prioritizing public interest and the democratic allocation of resources for the increase of access to the Internet in the region, both in quantitative and in qualitative terms.

In order to achieve what Ebadi claims at the end of the article, “a mechanism to enable everyone to profit from internet without limitations and discriminations”, more effort must be invested in making world views that are embedded in ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) and the arrangements for their development, implementation and use, more transparent, inclusive, plural, and, at the same time, in making the power relations embedded in technologies less asymmetric. More effort must also be invested in ensuring that ICT development, policies and regulation prioritize the respect for human rights over imperious interests, either of non-democratic governments and/or of an increasingly concentrated global market that frequently sets the rules for governments and populations, deepening inequalities, increasing exclusion and violating fundamental rights under the lenient eyes of some of the world’s older democracies.

  1. Stalder, Felix. (2010). Leaks, Whistle-Blowers and the Networked News Ecology. Notes and Nodes. In: http://felix.openflows.com/node/149
  2. Hardt, M; Negri, A. (2001). Empire. Rio de Janeiro: Record.
Gordon Süß
comments powered by Disqus