Human rights and Internet regulation

Research by Catherine Easton

The Internet has become a fundamental part of modern life, with an ever-increasing number of services and interactions moving into the online sphere. With governments, self-regulatory bodies, and global corporations such as Google and Facebook at the forefront of online development, there is a need to turn the focus on to end users in order to address a growing power imbalance. This is increasingly pressing in the light of revelations of pervasive governmental surveillance of online communications.

The Internet Governance Forum is a United Nations-convened forum to enable dialogue on policy relating to how the Internet develops. A number of coalitions drive its work forward and I am currently co-chair of the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition. The coalition has drafted the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet which has been translated into a number of languages including Turkish and Arabic. This draws together existing human rights principles and applies them to the Internet and online communications. It was developed to be used as a tool by policymakers and as an advocacy tool for governments, commercial interests and civil society. It has been used globally in an educational environment, in order to strengthen end users’ online protection and to increase awareness of their rights. The Charter has been referenced by the Council of Europe and political proposals such as the New Zealand Greens’ Draft Consultation on an Internet Rights and Freedoms Bill. The coalition works closely with activist groups and has, for example, organised panels focusing on anonymity and State censorship. Through activities such as these, the aim is to enable end users to understand their rights and, draw policymakers’ attention to the need to have a people-focused approach to Internet regulation.

A further facet of my work on human rights and Internet regulation is my research into online accessibility. At a basic level, if websites are designed following certain principles then they will be able to be used by disabled people employing, for example, screenreaders or assistive technology. This approach to design will, in turn, make websites easier to navigate for all users. My work has found that, although there are equality laws that mandate accessible design, the level of compliance is worryingly low. To address this, I have undertaken work with designers and policymakers to try to bridge this gap. This included a public engagement event at Lancaster University and work with the Lancashire Citizens’ Advice Bureaux on the development of the website supporting the Universal Credit roll-out.