Fragile but still intact encryption

Fragile but still intact encryption
Photo by Riho Kitagawa / Unsplash

It's been a big week for encryption.

Any proposal to build antifragile encryption is a policy+tech proposal. Stay tuned. Watch this space. First, celebrate!

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Fresh off the web

But first! An essay for the week:

Why are civil society vital participants in internet standards? Human rights. (Read on

Last month, I previewed CDT’s platform we’d be sharing at the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS), a United Nations-sponsored meeting focused on the importance of human rights considerations in internet standards. I was excited to highlight the ways privacy, accessibility and freedom of expression are vital for democratic and equitable digital governance. The panel focused in particular on how these core human rights considerations can be incorporated into the processes to develop internet technical standards.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for digital technology, has overseen the WSIS process from its origins. Crucially, the ITU is a “multilateral” agency, meaning that  it has traditionally been a forum for government-to-government negotiations and agreements.

In the case of technical standards, though, our panel revolved around the idea that nation-states can’t do it alone. While U.N. member states have all signed the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, the human rights framework needs civil society to play a role — in this case to ensure that essential rights aren’t forgotten when technologies are designed. 

Governments can’t effectively police each other, for one thing. And of course, some governments have little or no interest in protecting human rights in practice, no matter what agreements they’ve officially (and in some cases, cynically) endorsed in the past. Civil-society watchdogs, by contrast, can highlight human rights issues in countries around the globe, without the same risk of being caught up in the complications of state-to-state diplomacy.

But civil society organizations face serious barriers to participating in standards-setting bodies, even those like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) that are more “multistakeholder,” (that is including a formal role for companies, academics and nonprofits.) They often struggle to find staff with the knowledge and experience to decipher the complex issues involved in questions around technical standards, for example. Nonprofit organizations may also have trouble affording the cost of travel to international meetings that can take place many thousands of miles away from where they are based. While not true of the U.N., technical discussions at standards bodies are typically held in English, and organizations outside the English-language parts of the globe may encounter difficulties translating highly technical conversations into their own languages.

That’s why our WSIS panel agreed that governments need to lend civil society a hand. If more national delegations to ITU discussions included civil society delegates as a matter of course, the conversation around human rights and internet standards would be far richer – and ultimately more inclusive. Instead of multilateral, these discussions should be multistakeholder, involving representatives who can raise issues that some states would prefer to ignore.

More than five decades ago, when researchers first put together the technology that would birth the modern internet, few could have predicted the extent to which our lives would be mediated by digital networks today. Now, technology standards have become important sites into which we can extend the human rights accountability framework. These conversations should not — and cannot — leave civil society out in the cold.

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