Humanising the internet: Human rights are digital rights

Human rights standards were once considered to fall outside internet design and terms of access and use. These legal standards and norms now prevail for international organizations, governments, the private sector, and civil society organisations.

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Professor Marianne Franklin’s work has played a formative role in an advocacy movement that has persuaded national and intergovernmental policymakers, judiciaries, and technical experts that human rights offline also exist online and so need to be recognised and enforced at the national and international level.

Her research on global internet governance, and participation into the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet has influenced policymakers, digital rights campaigners, and technology experts, changing mindsets across the technology policymaking spectrum.

In Digital Dilemmas, (2013), and related publications, Franklin provides evidence of competition between states and corporations to frame, and so control the internet’s “narrative of origins”. Her work explores the stakes and shifting terms of engagement for powerful players who can set the agenda, from Google and Facebook to the US State Department and the UN. These actors are under increasing scrutiny as they make increasingly publicised decisions about the internet’s future design and terms of access and use, with major implications for how human rights law and norms can deal with the challenges that the internet’s digital networks bring for civil liberties such as privacy, freedom of expression, the right to education, and cultural diversity.

Franklin’s research on internet-policymaking processes has informed her leadership of the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition (IRPC), in particular her work to oversee and disseminate the IRPC’s Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet through the “Charter Booklet Project”. The book, in digital and print form, is now available in ten languages and multiple editions.

Franklin’s work challenges popular perceptions that the internet is simply a technical and engineering achievement, led by the private sector with little government intervention. She was present and on record - as researcher and leader in human rights advocacy for the online environment - in meetings culminating in the UN General Assembly, and Council of Europe recognition in 2014 that human rights are digital rights, and must be respected under international law.

One example of the IRPC Charter’s influence on public debates and policy agendas was in 2019 when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the World Wide Web consortium and founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, acknowledged the Charter as a source in his Contract for the Web, which calls on governments, companies, and citizens ‘safeguard [the internet] from abuse and ensure it benefits humanity’.