Egypt and the Realization of Human Rights in the Digital Age

February 14, 2011
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

  • Dunstan Allison-Hope portrait

    Dunstan Allison-Hope

    Senior Advisor, BSR

The recent developments in Egypt have provided increasing hope for all of us who believe in democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The events have also provided ample new material for the “cyber-optimists” versus “cyber-skeptics” debate.

In the former camp are those who believe that new communications technologies will open up closed societies and accelerate transitions to democracy.  In the latter camp are those who believe that the same technologies can become a new source of repression and shore up authoritarian regimes, or who simply “don’t believe the hype” of those who believe that new technologies are ushering in an age of unprecedented openness.

The current situation in Egypt clearly moves the needle towards the “cyber-optimist” end of the spectrum. The images of peaceful change, hopefully leading to more democracy in Egypt, have been truly inspiring. But events over the past year also illustrate that these positive outcomes are by no means inevitable: whether it was the use of surveillance technology in Iran, demands from the governments of UAE, Saudi Arabia, and India (among others) to access messages sent over Blackberrys, or Google’s retreat from the Chinese search market, events don’t always develop the way that “cyber-optimists” would like them to.

In fact, the recent events in Egypt did not move only in one direction either, as the forced closure of entire mobile phone networks, the near-wholesale suspension of internet access, and the sending of pro-government text messages, so clearly illustrate. Egypt is but the latest—and most vivid—reminder of how business is squarely in the center of events that determine how well human rights are protected, and how important it is for business to make a positive contribution to protecting human rights.

In fact, neither the cheerleaders nor the cynics have it completely right.  The digital age has great potential to advance human rights, but it won’t happen automatically: It is what we as a global society—individuals, governments, companies and civil society—make of the communications tools at our disposal that will make a difference. What’s required from the private sector is a conscious, deliberate, and diligent approach that brings human rights principles squarely into business policy and operations. That’s why BSR has been working with companies to establish and implement human rights policies for nearly two decades.

In our new report on human rights in the digital age, published this week, BSR explores the roles that communications and technology companies should play in protecting human rights. One of our key points is that this is not a role only for the most visible companies; it is for the entire information ecosystem. Attention in Egypt, for example, focused on Vodafone’s and France Telecom’s decisions to comply with government demands to shut down internet service.  In fact, the need for a conscious and deliberate effort to protect human rights extends across the whole industry, including telecommunications services, mobile devices, consumer electronics, security software, IT services, internet companies, and social media.

These issues are hardly limited to the evolution in Egypt or—the example many people often cite—China. The fact is, in every country there is a complex relationship between human rights, information and communications technology, law enforcement agencies, and the need to protect national security. All around the world there are legitimate reasons why governments and companies may restrict the flow of information (such as removing images of child exploitation) or allow access to personal information (such as tackling violent crime or international terrorism). The challenge is to define these restrictions as narrowly as possible, so that only legitimate purposes are served. Companies have a role by not being just passive recipients of government regulation and action, but by engaging in a dialogue with civil society and the public sector to keep restrictions or information sharing as limited as is absolutely necessary.

With business engaged in this way, it is much likelier that the “cyber-optimists” will prove to have been correct. It is also the case that peaceful change like that we’ve witnessed in Egypt will be likelier…and that it will be less necessary.

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