Connectivity must include rights

You know that connecting the next billion to the internet has become a big deal when both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim sit down in the World Bank board room in Washington D.C. to announce their ambitions.

Well, the good news is that Access Now was also invited to the table last week when the discussions took place. It was pretty clear that they — and the world finance ministers in the room — are taking this effort seriously: the Global Connect Initiative, which aims to coordinate overlapping efforts worldwide, has the laudable goal of connecting 1.5 billion people by the year 2020.

Besides the U.S., developing countries such as India and Nigeria are showing their own support, and aid agencies and development banks are looking to make up the gaps through targeted financing in countries like Ethiopia and Myanmar.

However, as these world leaders spoke about opening wireless spectrum to improve access or “digging once” to efficiently install fiber lines, they left a gaping hole in their recommendations: human rights.

As I argued last year with U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion David Kaye, connecting people to the internet is important but it matters what kind of internet they connect to. Will the internet in 2020 support innovation and the free flow of information, or will it be censored, blocked, or even shut down completely?

At Access Now, we fight for the digital rights of users at risk every day. Our free 24-hour Digital Security Helpline helps people who are threatened for their online expression, and last year we supported more than 1,000 cases across 70 countries from South Sudan to Syria to Myanmar. On the policy front, we’re campaigning for our privacy by supporting encryption worldwide, fighting for digital rights in Latin America, and promoting business and human rights in the tech community.

We therefore know first hand that this is not just a question of connectivity but the type and quality of connectivity that’s on offer. And with the Global Connect initiative emerging with Facebook’s and other connectivity initiatives from the International Telecommunications Union to the World Economic Forum, we need to make sure that we get it right.

Here are our three recommendations for making sure Global Connect — and other connectivity initiatives — foster a rights-respecting internet.

Firstly, bake in human rights by design. Many of these projects, such as the roll-out of broadband internet in Nicaragua, are occurring at a massive scale, and involve numerous partners. They also can involve hundreds of millions of dollars. Therefore funded projects should include a Human Rights Impact Assessment before approval, similar to the Environment Impact Assessments conducted before the construction of large finance projects such as hydroelectric dams. Is this an initiative that is going to deliver a censored, monitored, throttled, surveilled or even militarized internet, or one that enables free expression, privacy, and association online? Connectivity is not enough, and when public money is involved and the stakes are so high, due diligence requires proper assessment.

Once approved, the project might undergo periodic human rights audits and also proactively issue transparency reports. Annually, the president of the World Bank could receive and approve a public report on the bank’s ICT-related projects, their progress, and their impact upon human rights — whether positive or negative.

Secondly, the role out of connectivity must support Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality not only enables competition and the growth of local innovation and content, but free expression on the internet. From the U.S. to India to Europe, we’ve seen important gains in protecting the free and open internet that support both human rights and business. We may need to build the capacity of governments to appreciate the economic and social importance of Net Neutrality protections. Regulators can support the three pillars of Net Neutrality — innovation without permission, best efforts delivery, and end-to-end access —  rather than letting dominant market players and gatekeepers stifle competition and the free flow of ideas.

Importantly, Global Connect and other connectivity initiatives should not fund programs that undermine Net Neutrality, including “zero rating” programs that don’t count certain data usage against data caps. Connectivity is a development issue, and the poor and discounted should not be offered a degraded subset of the internet — they should get all of it, like the rest of us.

Thirdly, don’t just turn on the internet. #KeepitOn. Internet shutdowns have become an early warning mechanism for human rights violations around the world. We’re seeing shutdowns ordered by governments at crucial moments in the democratic process — during elections, when they shut off mobile internet, communications platforms, and mobile banking services. Access Now recorded at least 15 shutdowns in 2015, and it looks like that record will be broken in 2016 unless we act now.

Connectivity initiatives must consider their policies around maintaining connection, not just creating connection. It is not okay for governments to turn off connections when the going gets tough. Even over the past few weeks, Access Now has recorded shutdowns in Chad, Ethiopia, India, and Pakistan. Each shutdown is unique, but they all harm people, violating human rights and often damaging the local economy. In Chad, the government blocked internet services for at least 48 hours during its presidential election, echoing a similar shutdown in Uganda in February. A recent shutdown in Gujarat, India cost local banks as much as $22.6 million dollars per day — and that does not include other externalities such as the effect on emergency services and journalists.

Policy makers can consult — or better, join — the #KeepitOn initiative we launched at RightsCon to fight shutdowns worldwide. Any partner of Global Connect should explicitly commit to keeping the internet on by pushing back against shutdown orders in the design and make up of the program.

An important effort

We believe the internet can enable human rights around the world, and support the ambitious goals of Global Connect, as well as the larger push toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. But as we argued in this joint letter with civil society groups from around the world, connectivity is not enough. Let’s promote and protect human rights from the outset so that we create an internet that the world deserves.