Public Privacy #1: Human Rights & Social Worlds – Online & Offline

Posted on October 15, 2014


Image by Flickr user Martin Krolikowski February 11, 2012 (CC-BY-2.0)

Image by Flickr user Martin Krolikowski February 11, 2012 (CC-BY-2.0)

When cyberspace interacts with individuals, networks, and states it no longer remains neutral. It becomes a social, political and private space that requires a constant balancing act of basic human rights – of freedom and privacy.

I will explore this further through this these: ’Freedom and privacy on the Internet can be realized based on basic principles of human rights and good governance’.

A UN special rapporteur Frank de la Rue has in recent years strongly advocated for a development of concrete guidelines and laws to protect human rights online and highlighted that privacy and freedom are interlinked. In line with Rue, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2012 stating, that ‘the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online’.

This is interesting, as our online lives are acknowledged here on a similar level as our offline lives. Already in 1994, Arturo Escobar promoted a cyber-branch of anthropology, stating that any new technology is constituted by and brings forth new social worlds. This differs from William Gibson’s (1989) focus on data, but moves closer to Michael Froomkin’s framework (2003) that describes cyberspace as a part of a greater reality, than the one we already know.

Escobar qualifies online and offline worlds as equals – but at the same time, he calls our attention to the new conditions that the technology generates. Our liberty and security rights offline may be transferred to the online, but with Escobar and Froomkin in mind, this transfer has to consider the ever-changing social worlds that arises in the interplay between online and offline. The core of the human rights nevertheless still applies: do no harm.

Governance & Actors

In order to keep the Internet global and open, there is a need for “a growth- and freedom-oriented, participative, bottom-up perspective on security that has human rights at its core.” This was stated in a joint Governmental Statement from the UN Human Rights Council in 2013. One way of shaping this could be through an international regime, meaning a set of different actors that decide on common rules and standards; a criticism towards this constellation though, is that only states can decide on agreements.

An alternative multi-stakeholder approach then came, including much more actors, aiming to give all participants same terms – but yet not voting rights. A multi-stakeholder measure that has been taken is the International Internet Governance Forum (IGF) – but the IGF cannot make official recommendations, only summaries. To meet the growing need for laws and regulations, one could propose a compromise; for example, the IGF could be expanded with a mandate to make official recommendations.

Concluding Remarks

When we introduce the human rights we know to the Internet, we must remember to consider the complex social worlds that it entails. The needed guidelines must be balanced between information and opinion, where we are free to use our rights, but without violating others. To govern these guidelines we need a bottom-up perspective on security and a quorate governing-unit that consists of multiple stakeholders.

This text was originally written for the MOOC Public ‘Privacy: Cyber Security & Human Rights’ at


  • Frank de la Rue (2011): Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. (2013) Report of the Special Rapporteur to the Human Rights Council on the implications of States’ surveillance of communications on the exercise of the human rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression.
  • 20th session of the Human Rights Council. The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet (A/HRC/RES/20/8)
  • Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture (1994). Current Anthropology. 35 (3):211-231.
  • William Gibson (1989)
  • Michael Froomkin (2003)
  • Peter M. Haas (2013): The Enduring Relevance of International Regimes (