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For ICANN to Have a Future, It Needs to Take Human Rights Considerations Seriously

Despite previous attempts1 I think it is safe to say that the discussion about Human Rights in ICANN was, until recently, fairly dead, even taboo. Nowadays, there seems to be a renewed demand for ICANN to have a future, and it needs to take Human Rights considerations seriously. During the ICANN Cancun meeting, representatives from several stakeholder groups mentioned HR and how they might support ICANN by informing its policy-making processes.

“It is not about the ‘ICANN bubble.’ It is about having the technical and non-technical issues being informed by the same human rights and tech principles to achieve the best outcome for the common good—which is everybody, including the private sector. This is a sustainable approach.”(Lori Schulman, IPC President during the ICANN Cancun WSIS event). Caused probably by the fundamental questions asked by AI, we realize again that the main outcome of HR compliance trust is the main currency of the Internet, as without it, even the best-engineered digital technologies become useless. Digital business is trusting business. Lose users/customers’ trust, and they may never return. To overcome the problem, corporations use marketing to replace ethics as the source of trustworthiness. There comes the point where the negative impact and disruption of a technology and its related product or service becomes so large that even the most powerful corporation can no longer maintain its value proposition. The recent rise of AI, which resulted in calls to halt further implementation until reliable trust indicators are in place, is a good example.

Given the scope, impact, and constant disruptions of and by the digital domain, trust indicators founded in truly universal values that are common to all stakeholders, with their ability to create and restore trust, are of critical importance. Fortunately, the world community responded to the Second World War’s global disruption by creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as legally enforceable universal trust indicators whose values and validity extend fully into the digital domain.

In the past, “human rights” have been weaponized and used to formulate imperative demands on the remainder of ICANN community and ICANN.org. It is also no secret that digital marketplaces do not want to be hampered by annoying questions about right and wrong. We have to “rebrand” HR again so that they can become what they always were, the tool needed to ensure the absence of fear and want. “Extending our fundamental human rights into the digital domain,” is just another way to say: “creating and restoring trust in the digital domain,” which simply means “creating and restoring security, stability, sustainability and prosperity in the digital domain.”

Change does not just happen; it requires a reason or motive. To generate trust where it has been lost has to be good business and come with tangible advantages for all involved. It is not enough to demand changes; they must show a clear return on investment to motivate stakeholders to implement them. We can already see a growing demand for trust and integrity at work in other marketplaces. As consumers go “green” and are prepared to pay the price for their physical health, they are increasingly prepared to pay for their digital integrity. Like the “green industry, a “digital integrity industry” emerges. We are just the beginning of a movement that is gaining momentum.

To align ICANN with HR requires not a revolution but a long marsh. The ICANN community has to learn to identify human rights with opportunities for all stakeholders. Multi-stakeholderism is a new and evolving model that has clear limitations. If it does not change, it will die and ICANN with it. ICANN’s policy-making has to move slowly and mainly be driven by economic considerations and not misguided ideals, from multi-stakeholders to democracy. Take, for example, the never-ending WHOIS debate. If we had been clear about the concept of rights with responsibilities at the beginning of the discussion, millions of hours of time and dollars of treasure wasted in circuitous arguments could have been avoided. The ICANN of the future simply cannot afford policy-making dominated by special interests that are out of control as they lack universal and common to all values.

Moving in the right direction will not require much. We should start by reminding ourselves and the community about the fundamental HR values that are integral to the DNS. We have lost sight that from the perspective of the UDHR, the DNS is poetry in motion. We do not have to stop there; the root servers are a perfect example of how diversity results in stability and security.

Next, we should explore how we can translate/use HR values in the policy-making processes and internet governance in general. HR values will also result in a clarification of the relationships between ICANN stakeholders and the relationship of ICANN to other digital policy-making bodies. This will allow ICANN to better and more clearly define its remit and competencies, and as a result, it will be able to rebuff attempts to use it as a playground for personal, political, and economic special interests.

ICANN 77 in Washington as a policy meeting could serve very well as the background to get things going. With little support from the board and staff, the ICANN community can create an informal cross-community group that organizes itself without too much noise and produces awareness and capacity-building activities that will help to point ICANN and its community in the right direction.

The above post was previously published on the IITF Human Rights in the digital Domain Blog.

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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