The concept of human rights in the information society involve comprehension of two key phrases; human rights and the information society.

Linking a legal tradition to a vaguely defined policy concept

Human rights draw on deep and widespread historical roots since practically all cultures, religions, and philosophies include human rights principles, though they also contain practices which are incompatible with human rights. However, one important date for placing it on the international agenda is December 10, 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted at the UN General Assembly in the aftermath of the Second World War to ensure that such horror would never again occur. The UDHR has since been developed into a large body of international conventions and declarations, some of them legally binding, others political statements, which UN member states commit to follow in their national legislation and practice. [1]

In the following, human rights are referred to as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as civil and political rights of citizens, as well as their economic, cultural, and social rights. At the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna, the international community reaffirmed the four principles that lie at the heart of the human rights regime: human rights are universal (rights belong to all persons), indivisible (rights cannot be separated from one another), interrelated (rights impact upon one another) and interdependent (a right cannot be fully achieved without fulfilment of all other rights) [2].

The term information society has academic roots dating back to the mid-seventies [3] but was politically revitalized by the American and European project to privatize and liberalize the telecommunication sector globally. In 1994, Al Gore as the US Vice President, announced the creation of “the Global Information Infrastructure”, echoed at the European level in a number of white papers and reports in the mid-¬nineties, the most famous of which was the Report of the Bangemann High Level Expert Group in 1994. In official rhetoric the many political, economic, scientific, and social changes related to globalization and communication infrastructure soon became “the information society” [4].

At civil society level, American and European NGOs in particular have since the early nineties focused on specific human rights challenges within a digital environment, especially in relation to the protection of privacy and freedom of expression. This initial US / European lead has today turned into an increasingly large number of civil society groups from all over the world, focusing on analysis and policy campaigns for the defense of human rights standards in a digital context. [5] One of the largest networks of these groups is the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC), an umbrella organization with currently more than 60 member organizations [6]. However, long before the development of the cyber rights community with its more specific Internet focus, a number of social movements had raised issues of information and media ownership and access to communication. [7]

When the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) process took off in 2002, one of its important contributions was to create and facilitate a global space where these very diverse civil society groups and movements met and were forced to interact since they were included in a formal UN process as one voice; the voice of “civil society” [8]. Both in terms of mutual ¬learning and networking on a global scale, and in terms of ¬putting human rights on the information society agenda [9], the WSIS process played a significant role.

Dignity, liberty, and the equity of all human beings

No single definition of the rather broad concept of “human rights in the information society” exists, although many documents praise human rights as the foundation for the information age.

The concept has at least two connotations. One relates to the ways in which technology can be used as an enabler for human rights workers. Countless examples exist showing how Internet has facilitated communication from suppressed groups, have enabled human rights activists to report on violations, to campaign across borders and to reach global information, and support to strengthen their case [10].

The other use of the concept, which is the main focus here, relates to the challenge of protecting and enforcing human rights standards at a point in time when new communicative means are essentially changing the way we live, work, and develop. Human rights are subject to dynamic interpretation, and part of their essence is their recognition as standards in a given context at a given time. This requires analysis as to how human rights are affected by current developments, how the core of a given right is potentially threatened, how it can be enhanced, and - crucially - to what extent the existing system of protection is adequate and effective given the realities of new technological developments. The international body of human rights is thus in perpetual evolution to dismiss new threats as well as to encompass new opportunities for their extension. Historically this evolution has always been the result of social struggles led by different groups in specific historical junctures. The relatively recent codification of women’s rights and the rights of indigenous peoples are a case in point.

Civil Society representatives attending the WSIS have stressed that to apply the human rights framework to the information society implies taking dignity, liberty and the equity of all human beings as the starting point of reference rather than technological considerations. It entails the task of addressing the basic values we wish to guide the direction of the information society, and to ensure that these standards continue to be upheld.

One central human rights challenge to the many societal changes, which we call the information society, is the protection of human dignity, liberty, and equity as technology becomes more invasive, as measures for information control, ownership and surveillance stronger, and inequality more visible. [11]

Several trends that characterize the development of the information society represent challenges to, and in many cases serious dangers for, a human rights-based information society. These include extended regimes for information ownership and management (i.e. copyright and patent regulation, trade agreements, digital rights management systems), rapid advances in surveillance, profiling, and retention of personal data (i.e. counter terror legislation, radio frequency identification devices, IPV6, etc.) [12], and new means for censoring and blocking information (i.e. state firewalls and filters, ISP licensing), to mention but a few of the current developments [13].

The Human Rights framework is in perpetual evolution

The acknowledgment of human rights as the foundation for the information society was after many negotiations included in the official outcome from the WSIS Geneva Summit in 2003. The Declaration of Principles [14] in Article One speaks of an information society “respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. The vision articulated by the Declaration also stresses the four principles of universality, indivisibility, interrelated, interdependency as reaffirmed in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. In other words, human rights in the information society are not only about civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial or the right to privacy, but equally include economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to an adequate standard of living, to education, to health, to benefit from scientific progress, and so on. This is important to bear in mind, since some civil society groups tend to see human rights as something secondary to issues of development, rather than the normative foundation for any society independently of its level of development. At the same time, some civil society organizations, especially from northern countries, have a narrow understanding of human rights, and focus primarily on civil and political rights - or only freedom of expression [15].

The Geneva Declaration of Principles affirms that the information society must not result in discrimination or deprivation of human rights and that states are obliged to promote and respects all human rights within this context. [16] However, as stated by the then Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, there is yet no clear response on how to meet this challenge: “We seek to build an Information Society where people and individuals are placed at its centre, where human dignity is firmly upheld and where human rights are recognized as its guiding principles. How can we best ensure that these principles are reflected in an Information Society? How can we make best use of information and communication technologies, which are the vital tools and building blocks in this endeavor? These questions await our answer, our commitment and our concerted action” [17].

From a legal perspective, many of the regulatory challenges relate to the transnational nature of the Internet. International agreements have traditionally been based on the premise of territorial jurisdiction, and Internet as a global communication space challenges this premise. One of the current policy debates related to the global nature of Internet concerns human rights and Internet governance, and to what extent the current mechanisms for Internet governance have an impact on human rights. Many civil society groups argue that human right issues of privacy, freedom of expression, access to information, and the public domain of knowledge are at stake in the existing governance structures. Furthermore, there is the challenge of reforming the existing governing structures, since the current forum for domain name management is a private party dominated by a limited number of countries and based on a contract with a single government. Here the human rights stance has been that the result of the ongoing negotiations must ensure that the future mechanisms for Internet governance are human rights compliant, both in their composition and governing structures and through regular monitoring and assessment of their decisions. “It is a state responsibility to ensure that Internet governance mechanisms are compliant with human right standards, that there are means to enforce them, and that governments can be held accountable for human rights violations, including before international courts. Internet governance mechanisms can and should further human rights by ensuring an enabling environment that protects and enforces human rights standards and democratic principles of inclusiveness, transparency, checks and balances, and the rule of law”[18]. At present, there seem to be a growing acceptance of Internet as a global commons, which implies effective access for all countries to participate in decisions regarding enjoyment of this common good.

Another debate concerns the global CRIS (Communication Rights in the Information Society) campaign. The CRIS campaign has raised issues of knowledge ownership and media diversity within the information society agenda, and demands the recognition of a new human right; the right to communicate. In response to this, a number of human rights groups have argued that these issues can and should be addressed within the existing human rights framework. The right to communicate should not be conceived as a new and independent right but rather as an umbrella concept; communication rights, encompassing the effective implementation of a group of related existing rights. [19]

A continuous and final battlefield to be mentioned is the struggle to ensure that working for and with human rights in the information society does not limit itself solely to the affirmation of already set human rights standards, but includes the effective protection and implementation of these rights.

With regard to technical developments entailing privacy threats, these call for a tight legal and political framing, which must be built upstream through privacy impact assessments, and not only once the risks have manifested themselves in our everyday life.

It is urgent that we continuously address the challenge of bringing people and countries closer to the standards outlined in the human rights treaties, and evaluate their realization through benchmarks and indicators for national enforcement and compliance. So far the WSIS process has shown little political willingness to address this challenge.

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[1] There are numerous books on the history of human rights, how they are spelled out in international law, and the attached system of monitoring mechanisms. See e.g. Alston, Philip; Megret, Frederic (eds.), United Nations and human rights: A critical appraisal, Oxford, 2003.
[2] Adopted 25 June 1993 by the World Conference on Human Rights
[3] See the article on “Information Society / Knowledge Society” by Sally Burch in this volume.
[4] The political information society development at European level is described in : Seán Ó Siochrú, Will the Real WSIS Please Stand-up?, CRIS paper, January 2004.
[5] Surveys like the annual “Privacy and Human Rights” (EPIC), or “Silenced” (Privacy International / GreenNet Educational Trust, 2003), or “ICT Policy: A Beginners Handbook” (APC, 2003) all present examples on how NGOs in all regions of the world are involved in influencing national, regional and international ICT policy processes. See
[7] See the article on “Communication Rights” by Sean Ó Siochrú and Al Alegre in this volume.
[8] On this linking process during first phase of WSIS see: Peugeot, Valérie. Relieurs. Etude Vecam, FT R&D
[9] During prepcom1 in July 2002, a Human Rights Caucus was formed to ensure that human rights standards were upheld both within the WSIS process and as the guiding framework for the Declaration of Principles and plan of action. By the time of the Geneva Summit, in December 2003, the notion of “human rights in the information society” was used both by governments and civil society in official speeches and references.
[10] Castells, Manuel, The Internet Galaxy, Oxford, 2001.
[11] This is elaborated in : Deborah Hurley, Pole Star in the Information Society, Rights & Democracy, September 2003 and in : International Symposium on the Information Society, Statement on Human Rights, Human Dignity and the Information Society, November 2003.
[12] Examples of recent technical developments which entails privacy threats include: Profiling: Profiling, which is based on research in “excavation of data” (data mining), challenges the protection of privacy, offline as well as online. Online actions and behaviours can be traced (purchases carried out on line, visited sites, downloaded documents etc.) by robots, making it possible to constitute databases to send promotional offers via e-mail adapted to the profile of the consumer. In stores, this opens for extended databases with customer information (age, sex, assembling purchases, number returns etc.) making it possible to adapt the reception to the profile of the customer and its potential profitability for the company. (See for instance, Best Buy stores’customers policy, The Washington Post, august 22, 2005

RFID: As pointed out by many civil liberties organisations and by the EU Article 29 Working Party, the deployment of RFID (radio frequency identification devices) can have serious impact on the right to privacy. The identification by radio frequency is a method to store and recover remote data by using markers called Tag RFID. Tag RFID are small objects, which can be stuck or incorporated in products, and which include/understand an antenna making it possible to receive and to answer a radio requests. (See EPICs RFID Privacy Page at and the RFID Working document on date protection related to RFID from Article 29 Working Party at

IPV6: IPV6, the new Internet protocol, can reinforce pre-existent risks. At present, computers connected to the internet are identified by a temporary IP number, which is allocated by its supplier of access. With IPV6, each computer, and even each portable tool connected to the network, will have a fixed and single IP address, thus the computer will be detectable and packets send out via Internet using IPv6 would have “fingerprints” on it. See
[13] An overview of global developments can be found in “Silenced” (2003) from Privacy International / GreenNet Educational Trust.[347]=x-347-61390&als[theme]=Silenced%20Report and in “Privacy and Human Rights - an international survey of privacy laws and developments” (2004) from Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
[14] Declaration of principle, WSIS, Geneva december 2003
[15] In the process of finalizing the civil society declaration for the Geneva Summit, a number of organizations claimed that the issue of development (poverty reduction and economic and social development) was to take priority over human rights. This perspective is problematic since it presupposes a distinction between development and human rights, rather than recognizing that the two are intimately related.
[16] The human rights framework is also an important part of the parallel WSIS civil society declaration, adopted on December 11, 2003.
[17] Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Bertrand Ramcharan, December 12, 2003, Geneva.
[18] Human rights and internet governance. Statement by the Civil Society Human Rights Caucus, February 23, 2005, Geneva
[19] The history and debate around communication rights is addressed extensively in the article on “Communication Rights” by Sean Ó Siochrú with Al Alegre in this volume.

External links

Coalition of global civil liberty organizations working in the field of Internet:
Electronic Privacy Information Center, US privacy and freedom of expression documentation:
European NGOs defending rights in the digital era; European Digital Rights:
Privacy International, European freedom of expression and privacy documentation:
HR and ICT training material and resources by APC:
Overview and resources for National Human Rights organizations:
Overview of the WSIS process, documents, working groups etc.:
WSIS Human Rights Caucus:
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:
Council of Europe: (i.e. Convention on Cybercrime 2001).
EU: (i.e. Data Protection directive 1995, E-commerce directive 2000).

17 April 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

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