Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Feb 16, 2016
Human rights catch up with ICANN

Human rights are hardly new to Internet governance. They were referenced in the 2003 Geneva Declaration of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), and re-appeared in the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society two years later. The UN Human Rights Council resolution on “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet” (2012) suggests “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online." The outcome document of the NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (held in Sao Paulo, 2004) affirms that human rights, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should underpin Internet governance principles.

Why, then, did it take till February 2016 for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to agree on including a human rights commitment to its bylaws? Perhaps this is a sign of ICANN having grown up - it's perhaps not a coincidence that ICANN turns 18 this year! At the end of 2016, it is likely that the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA functions), housed at ICANN, will move away from the oversight of the US government to the Internet community. As part of its maturation, one can only say it is great that ICANN embraces internationally and universally accepted human rights as part of its core values. While the operationalisation of human rights in Internet governance has moved a step closer, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The ICANN Board of Directors has agreed with the Cross Community Working Group (CCWG) on enhancing ICANN’s accountability that a commitment to respect human rights should be part of ICANN’s by-laws. But the development of a “framework of interpretation” for determining what human rights laws are applicable to ICANN is part of the so-called Work Stream 2, which would be taken up once the IANA transition is complete. Sans implementation, a commitment to human rights on paper is not worth much. For ICANN, the framework as proposed in the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights is comparable -- there is even a sector guide on ICTs, and the Cross Community Working Party on ICANN's Corporate and Social Responsibility to Respect Human Rights has offered a comprehensive report on the subject <2>.

ICANN would not be the first company to commit to human rights; Microsoft, Telenor, Unilever, Adidas, and Coca Cola have already made similar commitments as well as a human rights policy and methods for remedies and impact assessment. Now it's time for ICANN, as well as other bodies that make up part of the Internet infrastructure, to help the world by strengthening the Internet as a human rights enabling infrastructure.

Niels ten Oever heads the Digital programme at Article 19, and is facilitating the Cross Community Working Party on ICANN's Corporate and Social Responsibility to Respect Human Rights

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