Next week, a high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly will convene in New York to adopt a final outcome document to mark the conclusion of the ten-year review of the World Summit on the Information Society (the WSIS+10 process). The fact that the document is reportedly heading toward adoption next Tuesday (15 December), despite some remaining negotiations, is a real testament to the leadership of the co-facilitators for the review, Ambassador Janis Mazeiks (Latvia) and Ambassador Lana Zaki Nusseibeh (United Arab Emirates), as well as the deep and constructive engagement of governments and civil society and other stakeholders. As the review draws to a close, I look forward to the General Assembly adopting an outcome document that includes meaningful commitments to human rights in the digital age.

The latest public draft makes important references to human rights being “central to the WSIS vision”. It will reaffirm the oft-noted point that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. These are critical, foundational principles, and I am glad to see them here. They make clear that those who participate in digital spaces and traditional public forums are equally entitled to the protection of human rights law and should be at the heart of the WSIS process. Indeed, development, human rights, and security – the key elements that make up the WSIS review – mutually reinforce one another. Access to information and education through increased connectivity can help to spread tolerance and strengthen institutions, online and offline.

The negotiations to conclude the outcome document will likely focus on a few issues with significant implications for digital expression and Internet freedom. In the final document, a few of the things that I hope to see include the following:

  • Some additional specificity around the principles of human rights. To be sure, this will not be a document that deeply focuses on specific subjects (such as encryption and anonymity online or implications of surveillance). However, while the draft recognizes the undeniable importance of access to information, I hope that the outcome document not only celebrates the value of the Internet for freedom of expression and development but also, realistically, notes that freedom of opinion and expression are under serious threat in many places around the world. These threats are especially visible and troublesome for all those who express themselves online and suffer for it – such as journalists, bloggers, so-called citizen journalists, sources of information, civil society organizations, human rights defenders, artists, academics and the many others who contribute to the creation of knowledge. Indeed, a reference that specifies these kinds of users would be very welcome and would track the kind of protections already advanced by the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.
  • Security online means many things. It could mean the protection against cybercrime and digital attacks, whether by common criminals or terrorists. It could also mean the protection of privacy and the private space to express oneself and create community, or the security of personal data and communications, particularly those belonging to journalists, human rights defenders, activists, and ethnic, religious, LGBT and other members of vulnerable communities. Many actors play a role in addressing these diverse security concerns, particularly in government, the private sector, the technical community, academia, and civil society. Moving forward, it will be important for WSIS and other processes to integrate a broad and nuanced understanding of security that maintains a place at the table for all of these stakeholders. At the same time, all security endeavors should take into account the human rights purposes laid out in the outcome document at the outset and ensure protection for core freedoms online. It is important that the draft document already recognizes that “approaches to cybersecurity should be fully compatible with human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
  • Speaking of stakeholders, there is little question that Internet governance will continue to be a major issue globally. I hope that the outcome document recognizes that all of the stakeholders identified above have enabled the Internet to develop as it has and are critical to ensure its function as an open and secure ‘network of networks’. In other words, the outcome document should reaffirm an Internet governance model that is fundamentally multi-stakeholder and open to public participation, emphasizing principles of ‘transparency, inclusivity and democracy’ and not giving pride of place to any particular stakeholder.

I admire the hard work that has been put into negotiations and support the dedication of all delegations to achieving the WSIS goal of a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society.

A Human Rights Day Message on WSIS+10