The Problem with the Universal Right to Online Privacy

privacy(As published on Norse on April 15, 2015)

A landmark decision by the UN Human Rights Council was made on March 26th to cover privacy issues arising from the pervasive monitoring by the UK and the US, in an attempt to establish that freedom from excessive (online) surveillance is a basic human right.

The resolution was spearheaded by Germany and Brazil, where public debate about online surveillance has been most intense. Naturally, German PM Angela Merkel has not yet forgotten the fact that her mobile phone was tapped, and event went as far as kicking out the CIA station chief in Berlin.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a trip to the US in protest of the surveillance on Brazil’s political leaders. Given that it is prime US policy to keep tabs (well, and taps) on all political leaders in the entire continent of South America, there is little doubt that the sentiment is shared amongst all South American nations.

It was expected that the resolution be blocked by the US and the UK, but it was adopted by consensus and the UN will be appointing a Rapporteur in June. This Rapporteur will have the authority to “remit to monitor, investigate and report on privacy issues and offer advice to governments about compliance. They will also look into alleged violations.”

The initiative, which contains the phrase, “the rapid pace of technological development enables individuals all over the world to use new information and communications technology and at the same time enhances the capacity of governments, companies and individuals to undertake surveillance, interception and data collection, which may violate or abuse human rights,” sounds very compelling and a worthy cause.

However, those who are skeptical of such an initiative have much reason to be.

To start, the UN has over the years steadily ignored both Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (where the Right to Privacy is mentioned).

This is hardly surprising since quite a number of UN member states have a rather uncomfortable record with Human Rights as a whole, and there has yet been little appetite for a clash on this subject.

Another major reason to remain skeptical is the equally uncomfortable fact that virtually 100% of all the UN member states are involved with pervasive online surveillance programs in one way or another.

In that respect there is plenty of negative sentiment to go around when it comes to online surveillance, and rightly not all of it is directed towards the US and the UK.

Even Germany, who is taking the lead in setting up this initiative, has been caught with its’ proverbial pants down when it was discovered that their own national security service BND was sharing data on German citizens with the NSA.

They are hardly alone in this: The number of European countries that hasn’t been subject to news in that area can be counted on one hand. To put forth an act that limits their own intelligence gathering operations seem counterproductive at best.

Lastly, it can be argued that the “Universal Right to Privacy” does not translate equally to “Universal Right to Online Privacy.”

However foolish it may seem, we have had a number of examples where such a translation proved much more difficult than it appeared. And these were not small topics: The laws surrounding warfare, for instance, or cybercrime.

Taking all these facts into account, it seems reasonable that this new initiative has some credibility issues. It will be very interesting to see if it develops some teeth moving forward.

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