RightsCon dispatch: Five steps to a rights-respecting digital policy in Europe

This week, Access Now is convening RightsCon (March 29-31) in Brussels — the heart of European policymaking. It’s the biggest RightsCon summit to date, with more than 1,300 people from 95 countries gathering to discuss the most pressing issues at the intersection of human rights and technology.

On day zero — the day before RightsCon began — MEP Marietje Schaake held an official pre-event at the European Parliament,“Tech and Foreign Policy – Bridging the Gap,” aimed at  “bridging the gap between foreign policy experts and tech experts in order to inform a values-based digital foreign policy” for Europe.

Following are lightly edited remarks by Brett Solomon, Executive Director of Access Now, at the event:

I have been asked to talk about human rights online, and ultimately, what it means to have a rights-based digital foreign policy. My name is Brett Solomon, and I am the executive director of Access Now. Our mission is to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk. We organize RightsCon.

It’s extra important to have this discussion in the context of a supranational body like the European Parliament, which is not just about relations between states in the context of the European Union, but the relationship between the E.U. and the rest of the world. I have come to this program a little late because we had a meeting of 30 executive directors to talk about the future of human rights in the digital age and the importance of the internet in ensuring a rights-respecting future.

As civil society actors, we have a vital role in shaping that future. We design policy, we advocate for rights, we demand accountability, and we speak in support of those who have no voice in spaces like this. But it is well established in international law that human rights obligations rest with states. By becoming parties to international treaties as part of your foreign policy, the E.U. assumes obligation and duties to respect, to protect, and to fulfill human rights. The E.U. must not have policies or practices that curtail rights; it must protect citizens from human rights abuses from third parties, and must actually take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.

The role of the European Parliament in ensuring these objectives is crucial. My five recommendations are to the E.U. and its member states accordingly:

1.) Create a €100 million digital rights fund​ that can provide support for civil society actors in Europe and internationally. This fund would be used to support digital rights organizations from a policy, advocacy, and tech perspective. Civil society is struggling and Europe should be supporting those organizations on the front line of human rights defense. Europe has such a strong record on supporting human rights; it’s now time to update it.

2.) Take the lead on internet shutdowns. Adopt a resolution that condemns internet shutdowns as a violation of the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights and human rights law, and explore the possibility of sanctioning companies domiciled in European member states that carry them out. However, support companies too, because they do not want to shut down the internet; in fact, some are allies that have already made a statement against shutdowns, including the one most recently in Cameroon. Ensure that the E.U. foreign policy agenda proactively recognizes and counters the shutdown threat in countries where you have mission, through reasoned interventions before crises erupt, and as they do. The U.N. “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law.” The U.N. Human Rights Council specifically “calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.”

3.) Every E.U. member state should join the Freedom Online Coalition.​ We need a coalition of rights-respecting states that will stand strong. Why are Europe and the member states not responding to internet shutdowns as they occur? Where is the diplomatic action to release Abd El Fattah, who has been in prison since 2011, or the hundreds of other bloggers and human rights defenders behind bars of facing charges? This equally applies within the E.U. The number of websites blocked and delisted more than doubled in France in 2016 compared with past years. Under a law passed shortly after the 2015 attacks in Paris, 834 websites were blocked and 1,929 were delisted over the last year, an increase likely tied to the counter-terrorism regulation that enables authorities to order the blocking of sites without the approval of a judge. Unfortunately we saw that the E.U., pushed by few member states, decided to adopt a directive on terrorism that risks undermining human rights and fails to acknowledge the internet as human right enabler.

Countries in the E.U. that are not in the Freedom Online Coalition: Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia,and Slovenia.

Countries in the E.U. that are in the Freedom Online Coalition: Austria,Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

4.) Rally internationally as a bloc for human rights.  The E.U. was essential to the success of the WSIS+10 Review, and to the Human Rights Council’s continued excellence on privacy, freedom of expression, human rights defenders, and business and human rights, among other topics. A gap is now emerging with the U.S.; there is even talk of the U.S. leaving the Human Rights Council. It is unclear what will happen in those international bodies without the U.S. The ITU, OSCE, ICANN, IGF…what is the status of the E.U. in these bodies?

5.) Stand strong on freedom of expression. The U.S. president is calling the media the enemy of the American people. For every tyrant on earth, ears pricked up, giving them the green light to undermine any news that they are opposed to. Europe’s rights-respecting digital policy must stand strong against this. This is why we want to invite the E.U. Commission to initiate a legislative process involving all stakeholders to develop a general free expression regulation. (​Note: this would support journalists and media workers, independent or not, who are being targeted on and offline.)

We are all entitled to human rights. These rights cannot be granted, nor repealed, by any act of government. But a good and strong foreign policy goes a very long way. The E.U. is challenged right now, and you were forged in the aftermath of World War II. But your history does not stop today. Your future is dependent on the policies you stand for going forward, and a strong rights-based approach to foreign policy will put you in good stead.

You can follow the ongoing discussion at RightsCon by tuning in to the livestream or following the #RightsCon hashtag on Twitter.