Digital rights are human rights, and in many countries around the world, these rights are under attack.
One way for NGOs to help defend those rights is to participate in the processes of the United Nations Human Rights Council. As we noted in our recent post on the consensus “Internet Resolution,” this is a forum for developing global norms and standards for the protection of human rights, with special attention to the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. It is also a forum for holding governments accountable, through what is called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This draws the sharks out of the deep water and helps us surface the threats they pose to our rights and our shared digital ecosystem.
The UPR was established in 2006 to ensure the “fulfillment by each State of its human rights obligations,” and through the UPR process, every U.N. member state undergoes a thorough human rights review. The process takes into consideration the reports of NGOs, and that gives us an opportunity to advocate for the rights of people around the world.
For the UPR cycle taking place now, Access Now has gathered evidence on the human rights situation in five countries: Chile, New Zealand, Uruguay, Vietnam, and Yemen. There is progress to report in some cases, but also regression or new human rights violations. The violations in these countries range from the imposition of complete internet shutdowns to implementation of mass surveillance programs to the censorship of journalists online. To protect freedom of expression, access to information, and the right to privacy, they must be addressed, and future infractions prevented.
Below we provide a brief overview of the evidence we submitted, highlighting what we see as the most critically important issues.
Chile: surveillance and data retention
Chile has been one of the pioneers of digital rights in Latin America, leading its peers in the adoption of essential digital rights protections. In 1999, Chile was the first South American country to adopt a comprehensive data protection regulation. The country also passed the world’s first Net Neutrality law in 2010, and in 2018, established the protection of personal data as an autonomous right. In the past few years, however, there have been a number of violations and threats to the right of privacy.
Our Chile UPR submission highlights, among other issues:
- The purchase of a software program from Hacking Team named “Phantom,” revealed after hackers exposed emails relating to the purchase
- The use of surveillance balloons, able to capture high-quality images and identify a person from a distance, in two municipalities
- The issue of Decree 866, requiring ISPs to store personal data for two years, and expanding data retention measures to encompass all communication activities in Chile
New Zealand: threats to whistle-blowing, increased gender digital divide
In the past few years, New Zealand has taken several steps to improve its defense of digital rights. Just this year, the government announced its intention to refresh its cybersecurity plan, and introduced a new privacy protection bill in the Parliament. Also in 2018, the country committed to leading the D7, a network of digitally advanced nations focused on “harnessing digital technology” and “working to improve citizens’ lives.” Despite these advancements, however, New Zealand has opened new risks to human rights, especially with regard to surveillance.
Our New Zealand UPR submission highlights, among other issues:
- The New Zealand government’s secret implementation of a mass metadata surveillance program named “Speargun,” revealed by Edward Snowden, and Prime Minister Key’s knowing misrepresentation of the termination date of the program
- Intelligence and Security Act of 2017, which targets whistleblowers and creates frighteningly vague requirements for search warrants, receiving royal assent in 2017
- The gender divide for online harassment, with a survey showing that 1 in 3 New Zealand women experience online abuse and harassment
- Violations of privacy by New Zealand police, including the monitoring and recording of phone calls by activists and a raid of a journalist’s home
Uruguay: purchase of spying software, attacks on journalists
Like Chile, Uruguay has been a leader in Latin America on digital rights. It is also a leader on internet access, with 83% of households connected to the internet as of October 2017. Uruguay has held two successful Internet Governance Forums (IGFs), attended by civil society groups, businesses, and government officials. Its “One Laptop Per Child” policy has been largely productive, and now works to improve public education with the use of the internet and digital devices. Despite these successes, however, the people of Uruguay still face risks to the right to privacy and right to freedom of expression.
Our Uruguay UPR submission highlights, among other issues:
- The issue of an Executive Decree in 2017 with vague language that could allow the government to punish, and therefore silence, whistleblowers within the government
- The secret purchase of a surveillance software called “El Guardián” that can intercept the calls of 800 cell phones and 200 landlines, among other abilities
- Twenty-two documented cases of threats to freedom of expression, taking the form of threats to or attacks on journalists
Vietnam: arrests of bloggers, activists, increased surveillance, censorship
Vietnam remains a country where blogging and expressing dissent can lead to harassment and worse. It has made some positive steps in digital rights since the 2014 UPR cycle: in 2015, the National Assembly passed a law that requires the consent of the subject before any collection, processing, or use of personal information. Another law, introduced in 2016, ensures the right of access to information.Yet the Vietnamese continue to suffer violations to the right to freedom of expression, and are also under heightened surveillance.
Our Vietnam UPR submission highlights, among other issues:
- Arrests and jailings of human rights bloggers and activists exercising their right to freely express their opinion
- The government’s urging of companies like Facebook and Google to censor information that defames Vietnamese leaders. In a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, signed by nearly 50 groups, civil society organizations in Vietnam allege that Facebook has complied with these requests
- Heightened surveillance of the internet, with a 10,000-strong team employed to check and combat “wrong” views on the internet
Yemen: internet shutdowns and app blocking, license requirements for online media, government “backdoor” to servers
Yemen has been embroiled in a war between the Houthi rebel group and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition for the past few years. This war has prevented any improvements in digital rights, and has instead exposed people to multiple violations of the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy.
Our Yemen UPR submission highlights, among other issues:
- The government’s total shutdown of the internet for 30 minutes in December of 2017, following a similar shutdown in April of 2015
- The blocking of popular social media apps and communication tools such as Facebook and WhatsApp, tools essential to ensuring safety in a war zone
- The prohibition on online journalism that is unlicensed by the Ministry of Communications, hurting many activists and local journalists
- Violent attacks on journalists, and the detention of 41 journalists and media workers
- Possible government backdoor access to the country-wide servers of Yemen, exposing sensitive and personal data of millions of Yemeni users