Human Rights Day: Back to the basics on privacy – part 2 of 2

Reviving old debates: WSIS+10

Another area in which the U.N. is addressing surveillance is through the 10 year review of the World Summit on Information Society, which is taking place across a spread of UN agencies and institutions, including UNESCO, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Commission of Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), and UNGA.

WSIS was a pair of UN-sponsored conferences held in 2003 in Geneva and 2005 in Tunis, aimed at bridging the digital divide and generally advancing the global discussion about internet governance. Some of the main outcomes of WSIS were the Tunis Agenda and the Geneva Plan of Action, which among other things acknowledged the importance of all stakeholders in harnessing benefits of ICTs and the internet, and established the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as well as action lines for development.

A review statement on the implementation of the WSIS outcomes, as well as a forward looking visioning statement for WSIS beyond 2015 are currently being drafted through the Multi-stakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) The issue of protecting the right to privacy and other human rights has been identified as among the challenges in need of being addressed in the post-2015 framework. A draft document entitled, “Priority areas to be addressed in the implementation of WSIS Beyond 2015” references this issue in three different ways:

  • Strengthening the interconnection between human rights online and offline –including the rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, privacy rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights; in accordance with international law;
  • Ensuring that surveillance conforms to international human rights obligations and commitments
  • Protecting the privacy of ICT and internet users

Additionally, the U.N. General Assembly is currently debating what the overall WSIS review will look like. Governments were unable to reach an agreement on whether to hold a summit, a high-level meeting in New York, or another option, by the deadline for the relevant committee to complete its work before the new year. Governments were however be able to find consensus on a resolution that gives them until March 2014 to reach a negotiated solution on the overall review.

The original draft resolution, proposed by the Group of 77 (G77) proposed that surveillance and privacy issues to be addressed in the context of the WSIS review. The initial text requested the U.N. Secretary-General “to submit a report outlining the challenges of the unauthorized practices of interception and distortion of communications and data and options to address the right to privacy, national sovereignty and international law as an input for the preparatory process for the review of the summit;”

While this text did not make it into the consensus resolution that was adopted, it is likely that surveillance issues will remain on the agenda for governments as the WSIS review process continues. Access, together with partners in civil society, prepared an analysis of the draft resolution when it was first introduced last month, which indicates other areas in which privacy and surveillance were considered.


The elephant in the room at the IGF

The issue of online privacy was also front and center at the 2013 U.N. Internet Governance Forum, held in late October in Bali, Indonesia, so much so in fact that the final main session on “emerging issues” was dedicated fully to “Internet Surveillance.” With representatives from the U.S. and Swedish governments, Google, civil society, the technical community, and others, the session revealed critical differences in views on the relationship between surveillance and human rights and provided an opportunity for participants to direct questions at some of the players at the heart of the surveillance debate.

Additionally, the 2013 IGF marked the first time there was a main session on human rights, which facilitated rich discussions over a range of human rights issues, including the right to privacy.

Access co-organized a session on the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance mentioned above. Participants highlighted ways that they are using the Principles to push for reform domestically and internationally, for example, through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism at the Human Rights Council.


Updating norms and expanding horizons

While this is already a significant amount of action in a short period of time for a fairly slow and bureaucratic body, we optimistically see room for further progress. For example, we would like to see the U.N. Human Rights Committee take on the issue of online privacy. The Committee, which is an expert body that oversees State compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) issues authoritative interpretations of the treaty’s articles known as general comments.

The Committee’s only general comment to date on privacy (Article 17) was issued in 1988, 25 years ago. Important and dramatic developments in the field of information and communications technology have taken place in the past 25 years, so a new general comment would greatly advance the understanding of the right to privacy from an international legal perspective. Special Rapporteur La Rue has recommended that the Human Rights Committee issue a new general comment in his 2013 report, and civil society organizations have supported this recommendation on a number of occasions.

Another concrete way for the U.N. to advance the right to privacy in the digital age, and its work on internet related human rights issues more generally, is to deepen relations between its staff and institutions dedicated to human rights work and those that focus on internet policy. For example, key players in the human rights sphere, such as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, her staff, experts from the U.N. Human Rights Committee and Special Procedures, and representatives from the Human Rights Council should participate in the annual Internet Governance Forum to facilitate knowledge sharing. The next IGF, which is scheduled for September 2014 in Istanbul, Turkey. With planning for the IGF coming up in the next few months, now is the time to consider better ways to bridge the gap between the human rights experts and mechanisms working in traditional spaces with those in digital spaces.


This is the second part of a two part post. Read the first part here.