Thursday 21 August 2014

A Policy A Day: Internet Rights and Freedoms

In the lead-up to the election, we are going to examine one policy per (working) day. We've selected policies to be as balanced as possible across a range of policy areas and across the political parties. The idea is to explain the background, analyse the policy to investigate the pros and cons, and give a verdict on the policy at the end. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. Also, I say 'we' because this series will feature some guest posts from other young people, to share their thoughts and ideas as well. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's policy comes from the Green Party. Gareth Hughes has developed this crowdsourced policy with the internet, through reddit, twitter, and other social media services. The bill is not finalised yet, but the crowdsourcing model allows for an unprecedented level of democratic participation before the bill even reaches a first reading, and provides an alternative to the sometimes inconvenient select committee system. There are four main outcomes of the bill/policy:
- Ten Internet Rights and Freedoms including the right to access, the right to encryption, the right to privacy, the right to be forgotten, and net neutrality.
- Establishment of an Internet Rights Commissioner to allow NZers to seek effective remedies for human rights violations online.
- A Chief Technology Officer (similar to the Chief Science Advisor) to champion the Internet economy.
- Support for a global Internet Rights Treaty

Digital rights are increasingly being recognised by a number of countries around the world, particularly in Europe. The absence of clearly defined human rights has been described as the "missing link" between the technology oriented and value oriented approaches to the internet. A lack of understanding of how real world human rights that are established and acknowledged translate to the digital world mean that there is a lot more room for exploitation and abuses of power.

Through a combination of common law and legislation, access to the internet is guaranteed as a right in Spain, Finland, and Costa Rica. A number of surveys and polls around the world have found that individuals believe that "the internet does more to help society than it does to hurt it" and "access to the internet should be a basic human right" (both 83% agree in the Global Internet User Survey 2012, which had a huge sample size of 10000 but may be biased since it was conducted on online). It seems that around the world, the trend is moving towards recognising these rights and ensuring that the right protections are in place.

Analysis of the Policy
Perhaps the best way to analyse the overall policy is to look at each of the four main outcomes in turn.

The ten Internet Rights and Freedoms are generally a good idea. We as a society already accept most of them, which is evidence by the fact that a number of them such as freedom of expression and freedom of association are already protected by law under other human rights legislation. This is both a good and a bad thing - it's good to reaffirm them and ensure that everyone understand that they apply in a digital context as well, but it's a bad to reaffirm them for the sake of reaffirming them. While there is some room for debate on whether or not these ten rights are the only rights we should be protecting or if it's worth duplicating the law, overall it is difficult to see why these rights as a whole should not be upheld. It is a little difficult to argue for these rights when bad things haven't necessarily happened in New Zealand yet, which makes this policy a bit proactive rather than reactive.

The establishment of an Internet Rights Commissioner is an interesting proposal in that it allows for a new individual with specific expertise to help promote and protect digital rights in NZ. Given that it is an area that we have mostly been silent on in the past, it makes sense that someone needs to be appointed to help raise awareness and also to enforce the rights enshrined in the previous policy. However, there are some legitimate concerns over the addition to bureaucracy, and while the policy proposes that the position be created within the existing Human Rights Commission, it is perhaps not strictly necessary when that power and work can be distributed amongst existing agencies such as the HRC and the Privacy Commission. If the internet is as ubiquitous as this policy suggests, then chances are all human rights agencies are going to need to be up-to-date and familiar with the digital space anyway.

A Chief Technology Officer sounds a lot more exciting if you imagine it to be someone who's going to be responsible for the government's technical systems and fix Novopay, but that's unfortunately not what the policy suggests. Having someone who can advocate for technology in the same way that the Chief Science Advisor does would be beneficial though; perhaps the best argument for this is the recognition that our politicians are, by and large, incompetent when it comes to understanding and using technology. Providing politically neutral advice would help inform politicians and help them make better decisions, and also help with educational initiatives to improve the general public's understanding of technology's role in society. Given the overlap with the Chief Science Advisor, I imagine that there would be a lot of collaboration to help make Science and Technology more of a focus for a forward-looking New Zealand.

Lastly, a global Internet Rights Treaty is a continuing work in progress that is in its relatively infantile stages. For our human rights to be truly protected online, a global solution that crosses national boundaries has to be adopted. A draft Charter on human rights and principles for the internet was produced by the UN Internet Governance Forum, and there is perhaps an opportunity for New Zealand to lead the way in pushing for that Charter to be further developed and ratified. There is less certainty in this part of the policy, mainly because when other countries start to get involved everything becomes a lot more fluid. We would have to be careful not to allow certain countries to hijack the Charter and dilute or destroy the good intentions behind the process and replace it with corporate or oppressive interests. It is a step in the right direction though, and it may just be up to the global bureaucracy to sculpt such a treaty into something that can last.

Verdict: A good policy that is long overdue. The internet is not a fad, and protections need to be put in place before we start seeing the types of exploitation happening overseas happening in New Zealand. The policy as a whole is something that we should support and continue to develop.

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