The Human Rights Council of the UN has adopted a resolution supporting the equivalency of human rights online and offline – “in particular, freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.” The Council is calling on all states to promote and facilitate access to the Internet.
Why is this important? Because this will be translated into the national policy of many countries. It won’t be equivalently translated – Rebecca MacKinnon has made brilliantly clear that China (a signatory to today’s resolution) sees Internet freedom as … freedom to do anything except what you’re not allowed to do. Freedom of expression in China does not currently include freedom to undermine “state honor and interests.” In many nations, though, the equivalency principle will be pointed to and embraced.
It’s advisory. It’s non-binding. It has no enforcement mechanisms attached to it. But it’s the first formal document from the UN that commits nations to protect and promote human rights online to the same extent as they are protected and promoted in the physical world.
Much of the emphasis of the resolution is on growth. As Carl Bildt points out, the resolution recognizes that the “global and open Internet” is a “driving force in accelerating progress towards development.” Internet access makes new ideas and new ways of making a living available to everyone, lowering the barriers to productive and creative lives for people around the world. We know that, on average, Internet access is responsible for about a fifth of recent GDP growth in mature economies around the world; the prospects for developing countries are even greater.
Bildt says we now have a global coalition backing a global and open Internet. It’s a foundational moment, even though we don’t know exactly what effect this particular document will have. We do know that open, fast Internet access gives hope to a lot of people. As Alec Ross says in a recent essay for CNN, we also know that this will be disruptive. But the benefits of hope outweigh the burdens of disruption.