Niels ten OeverThe Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) held the last of its three annual open meetings in Dublin in October 2015. A report by Ayden Férdeline of that meeting has been published on the Media Policy Project’s blog here. LSE alumna and NextGen@ICANN participant Sana Ali also attended the meeting, and spoke to Niels ten Oever from Article 19 to discuss a report which argues that ICANN has a responsibility to respect human rights. Below, Sana introduces the report before interviewing Niels.

Applying human rights to ICANN: the background

ICANN’s continued insistence that its mandate only extends to technical questions about how the Internet is governed (as opposed to getting involved in the tricky business of online content regulation) has often made it the subject of criticism. It is in the area of human rights that this tension about remit manifests itself, since some advocates for human rights believe that ICANN ought to play a more proactive role in setting the boundaries for what is, and what is not, harmful content.

A report published by the Cross Community Working Party on ICANN’s Corporate and Social Responsibility to Respect Human Rights (CCWP-HR) applies the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to ICANN’s complex multistakeholder governance structure. The report is an attempt to help ICANN translate ‘respect for human rights’ into the necessary key policies and procedures required by the organisation to demonstrate its commitment in this area (a subject previously discussed on the blog here).

Niels ten Oever, who is facilitating the Working Group, explains the immediate and long-term aims of this initiative, and what obstacles are likely to be encountered ahead of its implementation.

Sana Ali: Can you explain why the publication of this report is an important step for ICANN, and what it means?

Niels ten Oever: Many people interact with and know the Internet via web addresses, and ICANN has a big impact on that. We imagine the Internet as a public space, where we think we have certain rights and freedoms. To ensure that we strengthen the Internet, we need to make sure these values are respected by the organisations that govern it. This report aims to translate the language of the UN General Assembly – that ‘rights held by people offline must also be protected online’ – and assess what an application of this commitment should mean in practical terms for ICANN.

Secondly, ICANN is also a pioneer with regards to its multi-stakeholder model of governance. If we think about how the internet should look and how this model should evolve, then human rights should definitely be part of that. Human rights should be an integral part of the evolution of the Internet and how it is run.

How will the reports recommendations be implemented within ICANN?

We expect this to be a continuous process. Our first step will be to understand better which rights are implicated in the work that ICANN does. A preliminary list is likely to include freedom of expression, issues of access and privacy, but the point is that we have not yet even begun to institutionally examine the extent of the human rights impact of policy about how the Internet is managed from a technical point of view. Only once that is done can we seek proper remedy.

Some people may be confused about how ICANN can continue with its arguably narrow mission [i.e. the application of global technical standards] while taking on board human rights concerns, a feature usually associated with content governance issues. How do you think this report will impact ICANNs accountability?

We certainly do not wish to expand the scope of ICANN with this report, but to include human rights considerations within its existing scope. Incorporating human rights implications in [ICANN’s] technical deliberations serves to engage more ordinary users in technical internet governance issues that have broader implications. Such engagement and increased awareness efforts are essential for the legitimacy of ICANN’s multi-stakeholder community.

In light of the layered complexity of ICANN’s multi-stakeholder governance model, what obstacles or sources of internal resistance do you foresee to implementing the recommendations of the report?

I think a lot has to do with raising awareness. At the ICANN51 meeting in Los Angeles last year, we were in discussion with the Chair of the ICANN Board, Steve Crocker. When we raised the issue of human rights, he said this was all well and good, but that he did not think they had anything to do with ICANN. Since then, I think we have come a long way in raising awareness and having constructive discussions about the human rights implications of ICANN’s work. It is true that ICANN has a very specific remit, and it takes time to understand how these human rights goals can be incorporated. But much of what ICANN does is equally complex. It is only a matter of bringing the issue to the table.

Challenges, however, are to be expected in a multistakeholder environment such as this. I was disappointed to see the second draft report of the Cross Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability (CCWG-Accountability), in which the Board commented that a commitment to human rights would be premature for ICANN. It is now more than 60 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – surely an adoption of a commitment to human rights is anything but premature?

But we are optimistic as it seems that there is now a growing consensus about a human rights commitment that should be added to ICANN by-laws, which for us is a great achievement and a first step along what will doubtlessly be a long and difficult road.

This blog gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.