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The Internet that enables human rights won't continue by accident

The Internet is a powerful enabler for human rights and an open Internet allows us to more easily exercise our rights. However, this Internet, the rights-enabling open Internet, simply won't continue by accident. It needs you. It needs every one of us.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Mr. David Kaye, recently released his report on the use of encryption and anonymity on the Internet. In that report he succinctly captured the power of the Internet for freedom of expression when he wrote:

"The Internet has profound value for freedom of opinion and expression, as it magnifies the voice and multiplies the information within reach of everyone who has access to it. Within a brief period, it has become the central global public forum. As such, an open and secure Internet should be counted among the leading prerequisites for the enjoyment of the freedom of expression today. But it is constantly under threat, a space — not unlike the physical world — in which criminal enterprise, targeted repression and mass data collection also exist."

Written in the context of elections, the following statement from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Mr. Maina Kiai, was included in his report to the United Nation General Assembly and summarizes the power of the Internet for peaceful assembly and documenting rights abuses.

"It is also important to allow the unimpeded access to and use of the Internet, in particular social media, and other information and communication technology, which are essential tools, especially in times of elections, by which the right to freedom of peaceful assembly can be exercised, but also monitored and reported upon in relation to human rights violations and abuses."

Mr. David Kaye and Mr. Maina Kiai believe, as I do, that the realization of an Internet that furthers human rights can only happen if the web is truly open. An open web gives people the choice of where and how to participate online and, most importantly, respects the rights of all people. For example, an open web is free from censorship and bolsters freedom of expression and assembly, protects privacy by rejecting mass surveillance, and treats everyone equally.

The raw potential of the open web to enable human rights exists everywhere; however, in some geographies there are substantial constraints against rights on the Internet. While many of us exercise our rights via the Internet and are happier and more fulfilled as a result, there are many people that cannot. We might use the Internet to connect with and gain support from people facing the same personal struggles as our own—yet many cannot. We might explore our religious beliefs on the Internet—yet many cannot. We might express our anger with the decisions of our government in a tweet, blog post or video—yet many cannot.

The global free and open web many of us enjoy wasn't created and won't continue simply on its own.

We must actively take steps to both preserve and expand the open web. We need to choose software, services and organizations that are working towards an open web and show our support by spending our money and investing our participation accordingly. We must also learn about and draw attention to situations where rights are being restricted, even if those restrictions are not happening in our home country. I am not Burundian, but it is wrong that censorship is stifling speech and news related to the political process in Burundi, and I will draw attention to it.

The preservation and expansion of the open web is precisely why Mozilla and the Ford Foundation created the Open Web Fellows program. This fellowship program has enlisted a group of fellows that have the technical knowledge and experience to influence activities on the Internet as well as the passion to resist the closed web and fight for a more open Internet.

Amnesty International is one of six organizations to host a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellow. I am that fellow, and I am working with Amnesty to add my technical capabilities to their human rights expertise in order to further the open web and extend the rights-enabling power of the Internet to everyone worldwide. That means working head-on against human rights abuses globally such as mass surveillance, restrictions on freedom of expression, and threats to human rights defenders.

Few of us may have the opportunity to work on human rights full-time; but all of us can make choices and take steps that make a difference. Choose to support the human rights-enabling open web, and draw attention to rights abuses happening on the closed Internet.

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