Governments around the world are showing increased interest in programs for proactive monitoring, surveillance, censorship, or modification of users’ online content, all advanced under the banner of preventing or countering “violent extremism” (often referred to using the acronyms “PVE” or “CVE”).
However well-intentioned, these proposals are a minefield for human rights. They risk targeting satire, journalism, activism and community organizing, political protest, and other forms of expression, as well as undercutting existing rule of law and protections for both privacy and speech. For this reason, all stakeholders — including public officials, policymakers, companies that run web platforms and social media services, and civil society — should be extremely cautious about advancing, supporting, or implementing them.
To help stakeholders assess CVE proposals, we’ve prepared a policy guide, “A Digital Rights Approach to Proposals for Preventing or Countering Violent Extremism Online.” This guide maps out a set of high-level principles for evaluating CVE proposals, and provides specific recommendations based on those principles.
Following is an overview of risks that CVE programs can pose to human rights online. Our three-pager also provides a summary of the principles we propose, which we explain in detail in the full paper.
Vague definitions, lack of transparency and accountability
Language is powerful, and in the context of proposals to counter violent extremism online, lack of clarity can be dangerous. Vague or overbroad definitions of terms like “extremism” or “violent extremism” could easily build the foundation for human rights violations and put vulnerable communities at risk.
Any CVE proposal or practice that implicates human rights must be grounded in clearly defined legal provisions, in the context of an accountable and independent legal system with adequate oversight.
Public-private partnerships are also an area of deep concern. Partnerships between government agencies and technology companies — or the “voluntary” CVE arrangements that technology firms may consider or be pressured into accepting — threaten to become loopholes to circumvent human rights scrutiny and accountability to rule-of-law institutions.
CVE as a vehicle for state propaganda
It is also imperative that CVE efforts do not become channels by which governments directly or indirectly pressure online platforms to privilege certain speech, or otherwise interfere with how people access information online. If government agencies and companies forge partnerships and conduct programs in this area, they must reject approaches that only favor particular perspectives, and commit to increased transparency and oversight. State-directed actions that interfere with online content or otherwise impact the ability of users to freely express themselves and access information are subject to the limitations placed under human rights law, including those specified by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Algorithms vs. free expression
We must also stand on guard against using technical solutions, such as filtering or proactive content takedowns, for CVE efforts, simply because they are already in use for other purposes (such as in the context of efforts to combat child porn). They would be risky and ill-suited to CVE programs given the lack of clear definitions for content, context, or legal mandate.
Monitoring vs. privacy
It’s not only free expression that is at risk. Some CVE proposals argue for approaches that are tantamount to surveillance, threatening the fundamental right to privacy. If a program implicates Protected Information — that is, information that includes, reflects, arises from, or is about a person’s communications, and that is not readily available and easily accessible to the general public — then it must be conducted within the bounds of internationally recognized standards for oversight of surveillance. It is not exempt from human rights scrutiny merely because it is proposed under a CVE banner.
When you harm rights, you inflame extremism
The internet can help foster education, provide access to knowledge, and open channels for dialogue that can prevent conflict and counter incitement to violence. However, some proposals for countering “violent extremism” online would undermine the very freedom and openness that we value, and that make the internet an empowering platform for all the world’s people. If we do not protect that freedom and openness, it will destroy trust in the internet globally. That would play right into the hands of those who wish to inflame conflict — feeding, not discouraging, extremism.
We have developed this guide over the past year with input from many experts and stakeholders, taking into consideration the human rights statements and norms that have been emerging in this field. This subject is complex, and is likely to become even more so as CVE programs are implemented and assessed. We welcome the discussion to come, and hope to work with stakeholders in every sphere — public, private, and civic — to ensure that fundamental rights are protected.
Access Now’s annual RightsCon conference, taking place this year on March 29-31 2017 in Brussels, will be an opportunity to deepen the discussion on CVE and human rights. It will include the voices of at-risk users — activists, journalists, dissidents, and members of marginalized communities — from across the globe. We invite you to join us.