GNI debates about the citizens’ digital rights protection

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) recently celebrated its 2017 Annual Public Learning Forum in Washington.

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Carola Balbuena/ @cbscarola

Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy Manager of Telefónica 

In an increasingly connected world, where large amounts of data are generated on a daily basis, it is essential to guarantee the digital rights of individuals, while at the same time to ensure their safety. Within this context, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) recently celebrated its 2017 Annual Public Learning Forum in Washington. GNI is an international multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations, investors and academics, who have created a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector.

In a series of sessions and interactive discussions, experts from the industry, human rights, and academia gathered to discuss current threats to freedom of speech, digital rights and how to advance the digital agenda in a more constructive multi-stakeholder dialogue. The forum also provided an opportunity to reflect on the current state of the debate on the law enforcement front in countries like the U.S.A., the U.K., and Germany.

Christoph Steck, Director of Public Policy & Internet at Telefónica participated in this event, bringing Telefónica’s views on how companies could protect better the digital rights of their customers, while highlighting Telefónica’s core principles of transparency, security and consumer empowerment. He joined the panel discussion on “Why Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration Matter for Global Free Expression and Privacy,” moderated by Mark Stephen, CBE, GNI.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s views on the need to expand the scope of the UK surveillance practices, helped to tease out the conversation. Whereas people tend to focus on political statements of the type above, Christoph Steck argued that “we should not lose sight of the capacity of democratic institutions to protect digital rights. Indeed, the system of checks and balances in democratic countries works, even in a world where digital access has opened up new possibilities to obtain information”, said.

As a concrete example, he pointed out the ruling by the European Union’s highest court to invalidate the Data Retention Directive 2006/24/EC, which required providers of publicly available communications services to retain data. Regarding the encryption debate, Christoph stressed that in order to find the right balance between privacy and security, the debate should not focus on the technological solutions, but rather on when governments should have the right to access information.

One thing is clear, dialogue and collaboration among all the actors, including governments, are vital to keep pace in this fast-moving environment.

Nani Jansen Reventrlow, Fellow, Harvard Berkman Kain Center, however, stressed the need for having “a more concrete strategic thinking” on how to collaborate, by identifying overlapping areas where human rights activists and companies could work together.

Frank La Rue, Assistant Director-General Communication and Information at UNESCO, echoed Reventrlow, signaling UNESCO’s efforts to develop internet universality indicators like R.O.A.M (Rights-based, Openness, Accessibility and Multi-stakeholder participation). “The Internet Universality Indicators will serve as a recognized and authoritative global research tool for assessing Internet development along UNESCO’s R.O.A.M. principles.” La Rue also emphasized the importance of these indicators to make sure consumers’ rights are respected, when trying to achieve universal connectivity.

The use of new technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence (AI) is raising questions related to the protection of the human rights of individuals. On this front, Telefónica has been deeply involved in initiatives where the use of Artificial Intelligence is being used to provide better service, while targeting digital trust and empowering consumers to have control over their personal data.

As Christoph said “in a world where big data is an increasingly valuable resource, we need to talk about how to find a new ethical behavior based on values. It will be even more important to have these dialogues between civil society, governments and industry in order to find the right balance.”

In sum, this annual meeting provided an opportunity for stakeholders to engage in these important debates. Telefónica along with six other telecommunications operators, which were members of the Industry Dialogue (ID), recently joined GNI.


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