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Internet and Human Rights

Internet and Human Rights

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Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize

Freedom of speech is the first step to democracy. Unless a nation is free to express its demands and ideas, how can it achieve its desired society? Hence respecting the freedom of speech has been emphasized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, unfortunately non-democratic regimes have always been ignoring this fundamental right of the citizens, by imposing restrictions and censorship, thus many writers and journalists all over the world lost their lives or experienced prison solely for the reason of writing and informing.

Shirin Ebadi.jpg
Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian lawyer, a former judge and human rights activist. Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her significant and pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights. Ebadi is a founding member of the iranian human rights organisation Defenders of Human Rights Center.

Governments try to keep people uninformed and control their social behavior through censorship. In North Korea for instance, shortwave transistor radio is banned, since it would enable the citizens to listen to the news from other news channels. The governments' fear of information is due to social reactions; additionally I could point out the massacre of the 1980s in Iran, when in less than three months, about twelve thousand political prisoners were executed and due to the strict censorship which was dominating in Iran, the news of this vast crime did not reach the people of Iran. Only later on, when the families and the survivors could leave Iran, the public got informed about this tragedy.

Luckily, ever since the invention of the internet, censorship has lost its effects to some extent. Only with a push of a button, the whole world will be informed about an event within a couple of minutes, keeping the dictators awake at night, since the technology destroys the shaky foundation of their powers more than ever.

Once people are informed about the events, they will not stay indifferent and will claim their rights and hold their governments responsible. In 2009, after the presidential election in Iran and in protest against the results, millions of Iranians took to the streets peacefully in order to express their disapproval. The government's authorities started shooting at unarmed people; a bullet hit a young woman's heart named "Neda", she fell on the ground and died before arriving at the hospital. This event was recorded by a passerby on a cell phone. The release of the video on-line led to strong public protest on both national and international levels. This demonstrates that the death of one individual could draw the attention of the world to the government's cruelty and brutality more than the execution of twelve thousand political prisoners.

Another important aspect of the internet is the creation of virtual communication networks. While non-democratic governments fear people's unity, shaping of communication networks, syndicates and organizations, and therefore try to hinder the creation of such organizations by all means necessary, the internet has come to the rescue, and social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., have enabled the communication between people.

People's uprisings in the Muslim Northern African countries, which is called "Arab Spring" by some of the Western media, also relied on the internet. Once the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya got informed through the internet about the crimes that their governments had committed, they united and overthrew the dictators. This is the reason why after the uprising of the people in Syria, the most help from the western countries to Bashar Assad's opposition was sending communications equipment, so that people could stay connected with each other and inform the world about Assad's crimes.

For all the impact of the internet on people's awareness and consequently on spread and improvement of democracy, non-democratic governments are not sitting still, and with slowing down connection speed, filtering or cutting off the internet, they try to decrease the positive effects of communication technology. In Iran for instance, many of the news websites and websites related to women's rights have been filtered and every time the Iranian people protest against the corruption or wrong actions, the internet gets cut off in most parts of the country for a while. Luckily, the Iranian youth have learned various ways for bypassing the filters and accessing the internet. Every time a website became filtered, a couple of days later - with the help of anti-filters which are spread among the people - they accessed that website again, or a new address for the filtered website would be announced. For instance, until this day, twelve addresses have been created for the ‘One Million Signatures' website (a campaign for the repeal of discriminatory laws against women). It is for the reason of such restrictions, that the organization Reporters Without Borders named Iran as "2010 enemy of the internet". However, this has not been unique to the Iranian regime, we observe such approaches in many other countries as well. For this reason in 2011 the United Nations have announced that access to the internet is a human right and any regime who tries to prevent this right through any means has violated Human Rights.

Since the structure of the United Nations, especially the United Nations Human Rights Council, is in a way that does not have significant operational powers, such a declaration in the world’s current political situation can be only considered as a moral recommendation and warning for the regimes which survive on people’s unawareness. It could be considered as the first step towards the stabilization of access of people around the world to the internet.

Another aspect that should be taken into account is the "digital gap" that exists between developed industrial nations and the less developed countries. In European countries, the United States and Canada there is one computer available for every two person. However, this number is much lower in other countries, including some African countries where for each two thousand people there is one computer. In such cases, in addition to the problems caused by the governments, economical poverty prevents people's access to the internet. This digital gap will soon turn into a cultural and information gap as well. Therefore it is necessary that by designing international regulation, the industrially developed nations are required to assist the southern countries in their attempt to access the internet. Through investing in these countries, they can help producing cheap computers and make them accessible for everyone, especially teenagers and students. What the United Nations have backed and declared, is that access to the internet is a human right, which is actually an ethical recommendation, and the ways to implement it should be established; likewise the regulations in support of working teenagers have been approved by the United Nation, and the ILO (International Labour Organization) is responsible for implementing them.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the internet has already opened many doors. However, many people around the world are still behind these doors and do not benefit from its advantages. We should think of a mechanism to enable everyone to profit from the internet without limitations and discriminations. It is our responsibility to work towards reaching that day.

  1. Translation by Mana Taheri, Humboldt University Berlin.
Gordon Süß
Sebastian Haselbeck
Gordon Süß
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