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Free yet secure on the internet: How can internet security be reconciled with human rights?

Are internet security and human rights two such contradictory opposites that we have to choose between one or the other - either free, or secure? The scandal surrounding the surveillance practices of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) demonstrates how government authorities and their demand for internet security threaten our basic right to privacy and our freedoms of information and speech.

Good that you are online! You are interested in our topic of ‘Network Security and Human Rights, and would like to know just how free and secure our data on the internet actually are? Perhaps you are also taking part in our community discussion on the blog ‘How insecure is the internet for us citizens?’. As a member of the Alumniportal Deutschland, you have registered online using your email address, and assume that your personal data and the ideas and information you share with other users remains a private matter of your own concern only. And you have every right to assume so – it is one your fundamental rights! Yet, the controversial debate over whether and to what extent the issue of internet security can be reconciled with basic human rights was already an ongoing issue even before the disclosures by Edward Snowden of the practices perpetrated by the NSA and the clandestine electronic snooping programmes such as Prism and Tempora.

Do we have to choose one or the other – network security or human rights?

A person’s right to privacy is recognised as a basic human right in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations, and is considered a vital component of a democratic society. In addition, the right to privacy is inseparably linked to other basic rights like freedom of speech, information and assembly. On the other hand, the internet is being used for activities that violate the laws in force in many countries. So, in order to protect citizens against criminal and terrorist acts – or so the argument goes – state-sanctioned measures like communications surveillance are intended to guarantee internet security. Yet, according to the UN Declaration, any measure that restricts our right to privacy can only be justified if it has been written into law and serves to achieve a legitimate goal in an appropriate way.

ACTA and Clean IT for greater internet security – and surveillance

There are differing assessments though as to what in the context of internet security is appropriate and justified. One example of this disagreement is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a proposed trade accord in which some nations, including the United States, Singapore and Australia, seek to introduce international standards to protect against product piracy and violations of copyright law on the internet. However, international protests led the European Parliament, to reject the agreement in July 2012. Numerous scientists and organisations such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders criticised the agreement’s provisions as being vague and lacking in transparency, fearing that the ACTA would restrict human rights, especially the right to privacy, the freedom of information, and the right to free speech.

For its part, the European Union created its Clean IT project for the purpose of combating terrorist and illegal content on the internet. For example, the project enables providers to not only control data on the internet, but also to filter and even delete content, and to report such content to the criminal justice authorities. Civil rights advocates see a threat to human rights in these efforts as well.

International principles for protecting human rights in the digital world

No matter how heated the debate on internet security gets, one thing is clear: Any regulations and agreements must comply with international law governing human rights, and they must consider all new developments in communications technology. More than 260 organisations and civil rights groups worldwide have meanwhile agreed on 13 basic international principles for protecting human rights in the digital world.

Besides basic principles governing aspects such as transparency of the scope of state surveillance and informing users of approved communications surveillance, these tenets also include protective measures for international cooperation and against illegal usage. Edward Snowden’s disclosures starkly reveal just how far surveillance practices on the internet have gone. These international principles can serve as a standard for existing and planned legislation governing internet security, aimed at protecting you as a citizen, your communication exchanges on the internet, and your basic rights to privacy, free speech, and freedom of information.

April 2014

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