Technology and Human Rights: Digital Freedom
The internet is an increasingly important tool through which human rights defenders and activists mobilise and advocate. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution which reaffirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. Nonetheless, states around the world continue to filter, monitor, and otherwise obstruct or manipulate the openness of the internet. Companies in the ICT sector can be involved in this limiting of digital freedoms, either directly, or by facilitating violations by governments and/or abuses by other firms.
Digital freedom is facing decline globally for the 7th year in a row. Freedom on the Net index 2017 reveals trends such as manipulation of social media in democratic processes, restrictions of virtual private networks (VPNs), censoring of mobile connectivity, attacks on online activists, as well as growing internet shutdowns. These obstructions and attacks impact on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but also create economic costs, affecting entire economies and individual businesses.
Moreover, governments are now regularly acquiring powerful surveillance technology from private firms, as Surveillance Industry Index shows. According to Privacy International, the surveillance industry routinely disregards human rights considerations, providing repressive regimes with capabilities often used for tracking of defenders. They believe that without proper legal mechanisms to restrain the flow of surveillance technology, this industry “will continue to undermine privacy and facilitate other human rights abuses, as well as undermine international security”. One example in 2017 was the Mexican government’s widespread spying on human rights defenders, through the use of NSO group’s spyware.
Internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies’ policies and practices can also positively affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy, including those of defenders, especially when they work together. Ranking Digital Rights’ data shows that many of the top-scoring companies in 2017 were members of either the Global Network Initiative (GNI) or the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue (TID), whose company members commit to uphold principles of freedom of expression and privacy. You can learn how ICT companies are upholding human rights online and offline here.
Our 2014 Briefing Paper on this sector highlights key human rights issues for ICT firms: censorship; surveillance; privacy; broadening access; supply chain impacts and children's rights.
Related stories and components
Govts. of India, Russia & Turkey censor social media & blog content the most, according to new research
Author: Paul Bischoff, comparitech.com
"Which government censors the tech giants the most?" 1 Oct 2019...
Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Watch highlights role of surveillance technology in govt. violations of activists' human rights
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, 'The High Cost of Change’: Repression Under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reforms’, reveals an increasingly repressive environment in Saudi Arabia, despite promises of reform. HRW documented a proliferation of human...
Author: Ana Zbona & Phil Bloomer, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Open Global Rights
There’s been widespread coverage...that Whatsapp is suing NSO Group – an Israeli surveillance company – because of a cyberattack exploiting a vulnerability in Whatsapp... [The] attack...targeted at least 100 human-rights defenders...NSO has vigorously...
Access Now asks for at least one improvement from 24 internet, mobile & telco companies, based on 2019 Corporate Accountability Index
In October 2019, Access Now wrote to the leaders of 24 internet, mobile and telecommunications companies asking for at least one timely and achievable improvement, a recommendation based on what Access Now sees as the most acute issues facing at-risk ...
WhatsApp sues Israeli cyber surveillance company NSO Group, accusing it of hacking the phones of human rights activists & journalists
In May 2019, WhatsApp detected a series of suspicious calls on its network and determined that the calls were infecting targeted phones with spyware. After the incident, Citizen Lab volunteered to help WhatsApp identify cases where the suspected...
Facebook's plan to add end-to-end encryption to its messaging services receives mixed responses from govts. & civil society
Facebook announced that it would add end-to-end encryption to all of its messaging services in an effort to better protect the privacy of its users. The announcement was supported by many human rights NGOs, noting the need to protect the right to...
NSO group develops human rights policy, vowing to abide by UN Guiding Principles, but human rights watchdogs are sceptical
Author: Steven Scheer, Reuters
"Cyber firm NSO vows to tackle human rights misuse", 10 Sep 2019...
- Related stories: Novalpina Capital buys spyware co. NSO Group & commits to helping it become more transparent
- Related in-depth areas: Latest news on human rights defenders Technology and Human Rights: Digital Freedom
- Related companies: Facebook Novalpina Capital NSO Group Whatsapp (part of Facebook)
Author: US Department of State
"Draft U.S. Government Guidance for the Export of Surveillance Technology", 4 September 2019...
Author: Channel News Asia
A rule change by the [Israeli] defence ministry means companies can now obtain exemptions on marketing licences for the sale of some products to specific countries... Industry specialists say the change makes a speedier approval process possible for...