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Let’s face it. The suppression of free speech is happening all over the Internet. Examples range from fanatics shouting down “unbelievers” in chatrooms to governments silencing voices to rig elections. We are equally convinced that freedom of speech as a principle should be generally upheld in cyberspace. This principle is strong where freedom and democracy are strong. It shines bright for those in search of freedom and democracy. Well, folks, think again. A recent experience has made me think otherwise.

To counter the loss of trust resulting from a widespread disregard for individual rights, including online privacy, security and freedom of speech, the Internet Integrity Task Force, IITF, was established with the mission of supporting the extension of our human rights, as manifested in the UDHR, into cyberspace.

The IITF thought that it would be helpful to establish a baseline to indicate people’s commitment to fundamental human rights online. The idea of the IITF Pledge of Digital Dignity and Integrity was born1. From this baseline, IITF hopes to establish a common ground from which joint actions to build digital integrity, curb digital abuses, and rebuild digital trust can follow.

The Pledge is in essence a Pledge to actively support the extension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) into cyberspace2. The Pledge was deliberately grounded in support for the fundamental principles of the UDHR and not as a political program or demand. The UDHR is widely accepted as the fundamental values that we hold in common and something that needs to be extended to our behavior in cyberspace and the Internet ecosystem.

After IITF launched the Pledge, it received a lot of positive feedback, but much of it was not what we expected. Strong support for the Pledge and its goal was quickly followed by an apology as to why the individual felt unable to sign. A typical response was: “I am sorry, I would love to sign the Pledge, but I think my employer would not like me to sign,” or “I don’t want to ask my employer if I can sign, as that might point me out as radical.”

There should be no conflict with respecting the neutrality or policy positions of a corporation, government, or organization and the right of an employee to endorse the Pledge. In fact, the IITF urges entities to endorse the Pledge. The Pledge deliberately does not support specific policies and only contains references to fundamental human values and principles. Values and principles that have been elevated by the world community and are legally binding as all 193 member states of the United Nations have ratified one or more of the nine treaties that are based on the UDHR. Entities should encourage those connected with them to endorse The Pledge as it protects their own interest and reflects well on them.

We must ask ourselves, is reluctance to sign evidence of unhealthy self-censorship? Is there really a need for self-censorship as a cost of holding our jobs? Isn’t the fact that so many of us feel forced to abandon support for our fundamental rights in cyberspace, the biggest argument for the urgent need to extend them into cyberspace?

When it comes to fundamental digital rights, our support for a Pledge based on the UDHR should be joined in harmony by our employers, governments, and other organizations. They should be first in line to commit themselves to the Pledge. As history shows, the suppression of fundamental human rights is neither wise nor sustainable. The harm it does to all, including the perpetrators, is always huge. The challenge is to enlist all stakeholders in the pursuit of our fundamental digital rights. Failure on that front will confront us with a lack of digital integrity and societal trust that poses even bigger problems than I can imagine.

It’s not up to others; it’s up to us as individuals and entities to stand up for our digital rights.

I harbor a dream of millions of Chinese citizens starting to jaywalk in front of the surveillance cameras connected with China’s digital Social Credit System (SCS). In so doing, with one act of civil courage, rendering useless all efforts by the Chinese government to control its citizens digitally.3 My dream today is that global digital citizens feel free, as a human right, to declare without fear of repercussions “I demand the extension of my human rights into Cyberspace!”. The IITF Pledge is where we have planted a flag in the (digital) ground in support of that goal.

  1. For further information and reading see: https://circleid.com/posts/20220913-how-to-restore-trust-into-cyberspace-beer-has-the-answer 
  2. Full text IITF pledge: As universal digital citizens, we pledge:
    • To embrace our fundamental human rights as the source of just governance, societal integrity, economic wellbeing, and the protection of our natural environment.
    • To extend the dignity and protection afforded to natural persons to their digital identity in cyberspace.
    • To promote human rights values in the setting of technological policies and standards.
    • To focus use of digital technologies on the realization of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
    • To support equal and affordable access for all to one undivided Internet as a tool for realizing trust and integrity for persons and humanity.
    • To act to the best of our abilities as engaged and informed universal digital citizens. 
  3. To read more about this, see: https://circleid.com/posts/20210330-digital-culture-wars-donald-trump-maga-and-china-social-credit 

By Klaus Stoll, Digital Citizen

Klaus has over 30 years’ practical experience in Internet governance and implementing ICTs for development and capacity building globally. He is a regular organizer and speaker at events, advisor to private, governmental and civil society organizations, lecturer, blogger and author of publications centering empowered digital citizenship, digital dignity and integrity.

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