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UN Report Calls for New Era for Digital Governance in which Tech Standards Respect Human Rights

16 Apr 2024

In a major milestone in the movement to consider human rights impacts of technology, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights details the obstacles and opportunities posed by technical standards setting to the enjoyment of human rights in a new report.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a pivotal part of the United Nations (UN) system dedicated to promoting and protecting the human rights guaranteed under international law. The UN system, and the human rights and international humanitarian law frameworks, underpin global governance and international cooperation. International standards setting bodies, both multilateral ones like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and multistakeholder ones like the IETF, are all exercises in cooperative global governance of the Internet and digital technology.

This new report follows a years-long consultation process that kicked off at the Internet Governance Forum 2022 in Addis Ababa with a session jointly hosted by the Center for Democracy and Technology–my employer–and the OHCHR. This event was followed by a period during which written submissions were accepted and to which the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) contributed. Lastly there was a day-long session at the UN Human Rights Council Room XX in Geneva, Switzerland where stakeholders from the human rights and emerging technology fields, including me, Mirja Kulehwind and Lars Eggert, then IAB Chair and IETF Chair, respectively, were invited to deliver our views directly to the human rights community.

The OHCHR report “provides a set of recommendations for the effective integration of human rights considerations into technical standard-setting processes.” It advises governments to abstain from endorsing standards that could potentially infringe on human rights and stresses the importance of conducting thorough consultations with all stakeholders, emphasizing the inclusion of human rights experts in these discussions. Furthermore, the report highlights the necessity for standard-setting organizations to be open, transparent, and inclusive, ensuring their operations align with human rights standards. It also calls on governments to maintain their human rights obligations when delegating regulatory functions to standard-setting bodies and to support civil society's capacity to contribute effectively and independently to standard-setting processes. This approach underscores the pivotal role of governments in ensuring that the development and implementation of technical standards are conducted with a steadfast commitment to upholding human rights.

Some of these recommendations are directly informed by the IAB’s submission to the OHCHR consultation. In its submission, the IAB noted “[e]stablished IETF standards in areas such as ensuring confidentiality for Internet communications, including TLS (RFC 8446)... QUIC (RFC 9000)… DNS over HTTPS (RFC 8484). Securing communication and designing an Internet that is foremost addressing the interest of the users (RFC 8890) are goals that align the mission of the IETF standards process to develop high qualitative specifications that make the Internet work better for human rights.”

In reference to how SDOs have made human rights a priority for their work, the report says, “upholding human rights within and through standard-setting cannot stop there. It requires that standard-setting organizations fully commit to the application of international human rights law, standards and principles, using human rights methodologies, and to being accountable for implementing that commitment.” 

The OHCHR report underscores the importance the human rights community plays in lending expertise to technical bodies. It envisions members of the human rights community as competent and engaged stakeholders in standards development, alleviating the need for standards bodies to develop this competency in a silo. 

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