Internet Rights and the burden on all of us – By Precious Ohaegbulam

The subject of human rights shouldn’t be as knotty as it is today. An enlightened mind would seem to think that this concept and the issues surrounding it generally assume a life of their own when brought up. Then you realize that as long as humans are involved, and that good and bad exist, then words like enforcement, protection, activism, denial, inclusion will continue to surface wherever human rights are mentioned.

Like conventional human rights, Internet rights and digital rights matter. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the rights to online privacy and freedom of expression are really extensions of the equal and inalienable rights laid out in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to the UN, disconnecting people from the internet violates these rights and goes against international law.

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron once pledged to give all UK homes and businesses access to fast broadband by 2020, adding that access to the internet “shouldn’t be a luxury, it should be a right”. Regardless of political affiliations, an examination of this statement should not brook any opposition. The subject of rights concerns all and sundry and cuts across social and economic divides.

However, like most things, Information Technology and the Internet are both powerful tools with limitless possibilities for advancing humanity and dangerous potentials for misuse. In calling for open access and pushing for internet/digital rights, I know that it is easy to cross blurred lines. It is important to realize that free speech rights and Internet rights have both responsibilities and limitations. Technically, you can’t say or do “anything” you like.

Why should everyone be concerned about Internet rights? It seems to me that the degree of attention given to conventional human rights does not correlate with that of Internet/Digital rights. I believe that we should all be concerned. The implications of playing the ostrich are grave and far-reaching. Two scenarios lend credence to that.

According to Rosamond Hutt, a Senior Producer at Formative Content, in 2014, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google began publishing details about how many times the government asked them for data. Facebook said that around the world, government requests jumped in the first half of 2015 to 41,214 (up from 35,051 in the second half of 2014). Most of the requests came from US law enforcement agencies, demanding information about Facebook users’ IP addresses and account details.

Then consider deeply Darrell M. West’s (Vice president and director of Governance Studies and founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings) assertion that in 2011, Egyptian authorities were worried about street protesters who were demonstrating against the government. Seeking to disrupt their communications and ability to attract supporters, officials there shut down the entire internet for five days.
The damage was swift and dramatic. Businesses could not engage in e-commerce or provide digital products and services. Friends and family couldn’t communicate with one another. Students were unable to complete online assignments and teachers couldn’t plan their lessons. Hospitals and factories lost access to online information, thereby undermining productivity and potentially costing jobs and lives.

The events detailed above should worry us. It’s akin to any one or government literally abusing your conventional human rights. Yes, the ones enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The same ones you learnt in Social Studies and Civics. The same ones that ensure you live your life unencumbered.

The process of advocacy and education about rights is a continuous one. Long—winding and necessary. This is what the Internet Freedom Forum 2017 (#IFF2017) represents – an arena where tough topical global issues around Internet rights, especially in Africa, are discussed between civil society, technology companies, government, academia and other stakeholders. Other hot issues discussed in past editions include surveillance, data privacy, freedom of expression online, the Internet and democratic governance, constitutionalism and digital rights amongst many other topics with participants drawn from multiple stakeholder groups including government, civil society and the private sector.

Why is #IFF2017 important? According to Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, the organization convening the forum, the Internet Freedom Forum has a track record of producing tangible, actionable outcomes. For example, the 2014 edition of the Forum produced a dynamic legislation, the Digital Rights and Freedom bill, which seeks to protect the Digital Rights of Nigerians, and is currently being consulted for replicability from other jurisdictions around the world. Interestingly, the bill has now gone past the second reading and public hearing stage at the House of Representatives.

By reason of our existence, necessity has placed a burden on all of us – the burden of being society’s watchdog. #IFF2017 comes up on April 25-27, 2017 at Sheraton Hotels, Ikeja. If you are unable to physically attend, ensure you track online conversations from participants across 25 countries using the hashtag #IFF2017 and share your learning points too. Advocacy is a journey and we are all co-travelers.

The internet is a phenomenon. A marvel. Every day, individuals and businesses literally depend on the internet for their daily bread by engaging in e-commerce and online transactions. For something so ubiquitous, one that seemingly guides our existence, would it be out of place to call for more introspection and vigilance from every one of us? The answer lies in the wind. Never mind, the question is a rhetorical one.

About the Author: Precious Ohaegbulam is a freelance writer, content developer and communications professional. He can be reached via email at

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