Thursday, October 05, 2006

Privacy and Human Rights as an Enabler to the Information Society

We would like to draw privacy and human rights to the attention of those involved in the WSIS process and the Working Group on Internet Governance.

Privacy is an essential human right, and is enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights in Article 12, and Article 17 of the International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights. Its importance as a basis for the development of a democratic society is stressed time and again by the UN Human Rights Committee and by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It has also been emphasized by regional instruments such as the European Court of Human Right.

In an ‘Information Society’, where almost all attributes of an individual can be known, all interactions mapped, and all intentions assumed based on records, the need for protection of privacy is crucial to retain a sense of freedom.

We believe that privacy and other fundamental human rights will not only benefit those within the Information Society, but will in enable the Information Society as such.

We are emphasising privacy because we contend that privacy is an enabler for individuals to practice and enjoy their human rights, and to participate within the Information Society.

As we all consider means to enable political participation within the Information Society, we must in turn promote, protect, and enhance privacy. Privacy enables political participation. The right of free expression includes not only the right to utter or to print, but the right to distribute, the right to receive, the right to read and freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom to teach. This right is enabled and protected through privacy. The freedom to associate and privacy in one's associations are intertwined. With privacy we may interact politically without fear, we may speak our mind without retribution, we may access fora without membership.

Privacy also encourages co-operation and trust. Whether in support groups on-line, or in consultations with doctors and counsellors, or within the marketplace, such interactions are supported by privacy. The dynamics surrounding an autonomous individual's disclosure of personal information are the same dynamics that generate trust in a society.

Following from the WSIS declaration in Geneva in 2003 and the work of the Working Group on Internet Governance, we notice with great interest the vertical foci upon access, consumer protection, dispute resolution, e-commerce, education, intellectual property rights, network security, domain issues, standards, unlawful content, and voice-over IP. All of these areas require privacy and other fundamental human rights not only as essential ingredients, but as the starting position. For instance

· Access policies that also include marketing and advertising regimes, or policies that promote the creation of kiosks that do not adequately protect users' privacy will create inequalities in the protection of fundamental human rights.

· Voice-over IP policies and standards that promote surveillance over confidentiality of communications may inhibit the growth potential of this technology.

· Initiatives on unlawful speech and measures to protect intellectual property may cast wide nets through the collection of personal information, which will in turn chill free expression.

· Requirements to disclose your identity prior to speak, whether through policies on domain names or through authentication protocols, will unnecessarily hamper free expression.

· Agreements, standards and protocols on network security that do not first protect the privacy of individuals will affect all conduct within the Information Society.

· We must consider policies on education that remind us all of the importance of human rights, not merely as something that we would like, but as necessities.

The challenges and threats to privacy and other fundamental human rights are numerous and varied. At this time where we see many global fora and agreements emerging to protect intellectual property rights, to help combat crime and terrorism, to manage resources and accounting, and so on and so forth, we need one fora to carry the standard on human rights. The World Summit on the Information Society is the greatest, and possibly only, opportunity for a renewed world consensus on these rights and values. Not since 1948, when we all signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has the world stood up to acknowledge that human rights are essential starting blocks to the building of a better world.

Privacy and other human rights protect the greatest social value: human dignity. We have seen far too many times the gross mis-carriages of justice that were enabled through vast surveillance and curtailment of other human rights. These mis-carriages are not only blights upon our legal systems but they reflect negatively upon our societies and our sense of humanity.

Privacy protects individual autonomy and human agency. Knowing everything about someone reduces that person to a set of known facts, controllable and manipulatable. As long as a zone of autonomy exists around the individual, the opportunities for abuse and oppression are lessened. In an open society, privacy provides a core pre-condition to participation, a most basic civil liberty. Privacy is thus a fundamental component to freedom.

There is no time more important for these rights than now. And there is no greater opportunity than this. We are asking you all to act.

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