Michael Karanicolas on Digital Citizens, Human Rights, and Internet Freedom

Michael Karanicolas is the Senior Legal Officer for the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), where he has worked since 2010 as an advocate for human rights issues, with a particular emphasis on digital rights and freedom of expression online. He has authored over a dozen major publications on freedom of expression, including on access to the Internet as a human right, copyright reform and digital surveillance. Michael also played a central role in developing and applying CLD’s flagship Right to Information Rating Methodology, and has been involved in CLD projects in Canada, Indonesia, Lebanon, Myanmar, the Maldives and Palestine.

The Digital Public Square Project caught up with Michael to get his take on the growing intersection between Internet tools, diplomacy, and human rights.

What does digital diplomacy mean to you?
Digital diplomacy means the power of the Internet to break down barriers between nation states. A couple of years back, there was an “Israel loves Iran” campaign and an “Iran loves Israel” campaign, where a group of Israeli citizens were posting photos of themselves saying, “We don’t want a war with Iran,” and a group of Iranians were posting themselves saying the equivalent. One of the biggest drivers of conflict is a lack of communication between the two sides. In that context, it is easy to demonize the other side.

The Internet allows people on both sides of a potential conflict to actually start to communicate and humanize the other side in a way that we have not seen previously. It allows for individual diplomacy, where you don’t necessary need to have your head of state or your foreign minister speaking for you.

That being said, it is naïve to think that the world’s conflicts are going to resolved by Facebook groups. But digital diplomacy can build a sense of understanding of the other side that certainly helps to push people in the right direction, towards a common human experience. This may set the stage for broader diplomatic progress even if it will not necessarily solve the problem by itself. It decentralizes diplomacy, breaks down national boundaries, and allows for a free communication between different cultures.

Some government officials believe that digital diplomacy is simply the use of Twitter by diplomats as a one-to-many model of diplomacy. Why can’t we move past this conception of digital diplomacy, and why do you think governments aren’t?

“When all you have is a hammer, the world looks like a nail.” If you are talking to someone in an established power structure, they are naturally going to see things through that lens. They are going to see Twitter and the Internet as this great tool to expand the dynamic that they already have.

That is natural, and not necessarily wrong – social media are a great tool for political leaders, and you still need proper leader-to-leader connections and leaders that can express the will of the nation. Digital diplomacy complements this, rather than undermining it, by providing another avenue for engagement. More than anything else, digital diplomacy keeps lines of communication open and establishes common understandings and common interests that the old power structure and the diplomatic sphere aren’t necessarily best suited to do.

What are some of the critical enabling factors for citizens representing themselves and engaging with others online?

The online world is unique in the sense that communication is dependent on private sector gatekeepers: Internet service providers (ISPs), email providers, social media platforms, etc. We require these to facilitate online communications, so the private sector is playing an incredibly important role in freedom of expression. This leads to questions about how – or if – human rights obligations apply to the private sector, or whether mechanisms can exist to hold companies accountable when they act in a manner that is not necessarily in the interests of their users.

Beyond that, there is the issue of control over communications. When people lose control over communications – including as a result of mass surveillance techniques – they feel less comfortable expressing themselves freely. Even if people are not necessarily being recorded or actively monitored, the very fact of an interference in, or interception of, communications chills the ability of people to be able to communicate honestly and openly.

And of course, content restrictions, such as defamation laws, hate speech laws, and blasphemy laws can further chill the discourse and put walls around what people are willing or not willing to say. There are all these different layers of laws and policies that can impact people’s ability to communicate online.

What are some of the greatest threats to freedom of expression and access to information online?

There is a huge variation from place to place. In countries like China or Russia, pervasive State filtering systems impact speech severely. Anything that substantially walls off the Internet in a particular place is a huge threat to the Internet.

Not only does this degrade the Internet for those users behind the wall, it also impacts the expressive rights of everyone else, who are unable to communicate with them as they should. If the Chinese government wants to filter out CLD’s website, for example, that impacts not only the people in China who cannot access what they want to read, but also our organization’s ability to connect with people in China.

Threats on this scale only exist in a few countries, but every country has policies and laws in place that undermine freedom of expression and access to information online, whether it’s pervasive online surveillance, anti-competitive telecommunications markets, laws prohibiting blasphemous speech, etc.

You recently authored CLD’s submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression regarding encryption and anonymity in digital communications. What do you think are some of the legal or technical trends that threaten the ability of citizens to use encryption tools?

In terms of trends to weaken it, internationally there is a lot of nervousness among States from the spread of encryption, especially in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations. After the Snowden leaks, there was a lot of hope for concrete steps to end the abusive practices, but unfortunately not much materialized at the political level. In the USA, there have been some small steps forward, whereas in Canada and the United Kingdom, surveillance regimes have expanded. There has been much bluster in Europe, but very little actual political action to stop these expansions, partly because virtually every government is complicit. Overall, the political reactions to the surveillance revelations have been disappointing.

The more promising avenue towards protecting user privacy and finding a way to avoid these intrusive surveillance mechanisms have been through the technological means to subvert it, including the expanded use of encryption. More websites and services have moved to encryption by default, which makes it more technically difficult to carry out mass surveillance. Unsurprisingly, many politicians view this as a threat and have sought avenues to make sure that no encryption is beyond access.

Is the concept of digital citizenship real? Is digital citizenship fundamentally different than a person’s state citizenship?

Absolutely. People have talked about a Magna Carta for the Internet. Some people have pointed out that the Magna Carta is not necessarily the best example to follow for historical reasons, but I certainly do believe there are fundamental rights that a person should have online. To me, these stem from universal human rights: you have the right to freedom of expression, to cultural participation, to political participation, and to freedom of assembly. The Internet has a key facilitating role in carrying out these rights. There are calls to consider access to the Internet to be a right in itself, which we strongly support, though you don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has served as the key touchstone since it was drafted, and maintains its relevance in the digital age.

However, as a human rights activist, I do think that there is ideological room to expand and reinterpret human rights in the digital age. The core of human rights is derived from personhood, not from membership of any nation state. Regardless of country or citizenship people still have these core human rights. The online context has made this interesting because it has begun breaking down borders between different states, but I think it fundamentally goes back to this idea of universal human rights that need to be understood in a digital context.