As a Latin American academic, I recently participated in a panel at The Hague during the conference “Freedom Online,” organized by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to address this question. My answer is simple and clear: to protect human rights online, governments should act with CARE. This means that governments should Coordinate their policies with other countries; Apply international human rights standards, especially freedom of expression ones; Regulate the Internet with responsibility; and take into account the Economic impact of their policies.
Coordination of policies is an essential consideration that governments must take into account. Policy makers must understand that in an Internet world, a government’s actions regarding the Web go beyond the limits of national borders. While some Internet regulation might be designed to apply within the country where the rule was enacted, its impact is commonly felt in other nations.
Applying international standards is essential to guarantee respect of human rights in the Internet era. It is very common for judges and policy makers not take basic human rights standards into account when they solve cases or draft regulations that have an impact on the Internet, such as telecommunications rules. Those who take on this task must be trained on which aspects of these regulations are prohibited by basic human rights principles. For example, if the regulation imposes a restriction to free expression, it has to comply with the three-part test required by article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. The restrictions must be clear and provided explicitly by law, should be legitimate in order to protect specific rights, and be definitively necessary in a democratic society.
Regulating the Internet with responsibility is fundamental. In recent years, the Internet has substantially contributed expanding the exercise of rights such as freedom of expression. It has also helped increase international commerce and international business. Yet regulating with responsibility also means regulating the Internet in a manner that increases the amount of people who can benefit from it, expanding the possibility of accessing high quality, rapid Internet.
Economic impact of these policies should also be taken into account. Good intentions that inspire policies can sometimes negatively affect Internet service providers (ISPs) or other intermediaries because rules impose obligations that are difficult to comply with. Think, for example, about policies that require ISPs to retain personal data for long periods of time. These policies could not only affect a basic human right – the right to privacy – but can also create a negative economic impact on small or new ISPs or other intermediaries that don’t have the infrastructure to maintain the data retained.
In conclusion, governments should take action to protect human rights online. International treaties on human rights are very clear when they impose obligations on states. Governments not only have to respect human rights but they should also provide conditions for the exercise of such rights. But when policy makers take on this job, they must do so with CARE.