Speech: 60 years of CERN

I spoke today at CERN’s 60 year anniversary celebration – here is, more or less, my speech

First, I’d like to thank CERN for inviting me to speak here – it’s truly an honor – and to wish you a happy 60th anniversary and many more years of scientific discovery ahead.

I’ve been asked to speak about the World Wide Web and human rights – this is a topic near and dear to my heart. As a freedom of expression and privacy activist, I believe that the Internet has opened new frontiers and given us an incredible tool with which we can connect across borders in ways that previously were only available to a select few. In many ways, the Web is like CERN… Neutral ground on which people from all backgrounds can debate and collaborate.

Many early theorists, visionaries and defenders of the Internet (oft referred to as “cyber utopians”), foresaw the challenges that this global network would eventually face. They understood that the utopian global Internet was in many ways a great equalizer and platform for expression and as such, governments would seek to restrict it. As John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in his “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Barlow’s desire to create a civilization of the mind, more human and fair than the world before it was indeed utopian: only a few years later, the prediction of other theorists—that is, the “Balkanization” of the Internet along geographic lines—would prevail.

Today, we see a range of governmental restrictions drawn along geographic lines. In China, the government’s attempts to “harmonize” the Internet have resulted in a virtual intranet, cutting Chinese users off from socializing with the rest of the world. In Iran, the motivations are different, but the result is virtually the same. And in countless other countries that we hear far less about, from Jordan to Vietnam, Turkmenistan to Ethiopia, governments both elected and unelected are taking measures to restrict their citizens’ use of the Internet. The justifications span a range, from protecting citizens from obscenity to “national security,” but the result is often the same.

The Internet as a platform for promoting human rights

The Internet is also a platform for the promotion of human rights. Its global nature means that, when rights are being restricted, there is always someone else watching. It enables us to connect with one another, and hold each other accountable. And it enables greater transparency.

Well before the events that triggered the Arab Spring, activists in Tunisia had already found innovative ways to use the Internet for the promotion of human rights. When it was observed that the Tunisian presidential plane was showing up at airports across Europe, Tunisian activists used data collected from around the Internet to confirm that it was the First Lady, Leila Ben Ali, who was using the plane for personal use. When YouTube was blocked by the Ben Ali government, activists living in exile used Google Earth as a means of exposing torture, embedding YouTube videos onto sites in the country where torture was taking place, thus circumventing the censorship and reaching a local audience.

Palestinians, siloed by geography and travel restrictions, their organizing hampered after the second intifada, have used the Internet to connect with their cousins in the diaspora, creating a stronger and more powerful movement than could exist on the ground. The same is true for Tibetans, for whom connectivity has been a lifesaving connection to their global diaspora.

And of course, the Arab uprisings showed the world the power of online organizing. While the actual impact of the Internet in creating the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings is hotly contested, the networks that enabled 10,000 people to hear about the call for protest on January 25, 2011 and take to the streets could not have existed without the Internet. The revolution may have happened anyway, but it would have happened much more slowly.

No matter what the impact of the Internet on the Arab uprisings, it’s clear that their success inspired uprisings around the world, an effect which would likely not have been possible without the Internet. From Sudan to Oakland, citizens have found inspiration in the rapidity with which the Internet allows us to organize.

The Internet as a human right, human rights on the Internet

Finally, there is the discussion of human rights as they relate specifically to the Internet. In 2000, Estonia—ahead of its time—passed a declaring Internet access a fundamental right of its citizenry, an essential part of life in the modern age. By 2010, a BBC poll found that nearly 4 in 5 people around the world believed Internet access to be a fundamental right.

And in 2011, a United Nations report declared that disconnecting people from the internet—as Egypt had done earlier that year—is a human rights violation and against international law. While first access may not yet be guaranteed, once it is granted, it cannot be taken away.

In recent years a discussion has been advanced that existing fundamental human rights—access to information, the right to free expression and association, the right to privacy—must be protected online. UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Association, Frank LaRue, has said that “the framework of international human rights law remains relevant today and equally applicable to new communication technologies such as the Internet.” Inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee put it simply when he said that “The web must reflect human rights.”

Right now, we’re facing a lot of challenges for both the protection of human rights online, and when it comes to the use of the Internet to enable human rights abuses.

To speak first of the latter, nothing has challenged me more in my work as a defender of free expression than the use of the Internet by the Islamic State, or ISIS. The group has used the Internet to recruit extremists and to demonstrate their barbarity by publicizing videos of beheadings. Many have likened their use of the Internet to the use of the radio by the Rwandan Hutu majority in the 1990s to foment genocide and, as such, have called for any content they post to be censored. There are certainly questions that need to be answered as to the utility of allowing information posted by the Islamic State to remain online, versus the possible repercussions of taking it down.

As to the former—that is, ensuring that human rights are protected online—the challenges are also great. Not only are governments around the world restricting the content that their citizens can access, but corporations are increasingly taking on the role of regulator, telling us what is and is not acceptable speech, going far beyond what is required by law.

We’re also facing unprecedented spying from governments, enabled by corporations.

[Here I said a few impromptu things about FinFisher]

As documents released last year by Edward Snowden have made abundantly clear—powerful governments such as the United States and the United Kingdom are abusing their power by conducting mass surveillance on their citizens and the citizens of other countries around the world. This surveillance not only infringes on the universal right to privacy, but also has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association. As Special Rapporteur Frank LaRue has written:

“The right to privacy is often understood as an essential requirement for the realization of the right to freedom of expression. Undue interference with individuals’ privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas. … An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.”

And it is not merely the NSA or GCHQ—digital surveillance is pervading local law enforcement, and will continue to do so unless we assert our rights to privacy, to association, to freedom of expression.

To conclude: The Internet is what we make of it. It can be a means of manipulating humans’ interests and controlling a populace, but it can also be the great equalizer, the mode of communication that finally enables us as humans to break past old barriers and connect with each other on a new level. If that’s what we want, it’s within our reach, but it’s imperative that we as citizens work to make it possible. There is no inherent divide between the Internet as a human right and the use of the Internet to promote or enable human rights. In order to be able to use the Internet to promote human rights, we must stake claim to our right to do so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.