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Data Privacy Brasil Research Association contributes to UN open call on the relationship between human rights and technical standard-setting processes

 Data Privacy Brasil Research Association contributes to UN open call on the relationship between human rights and technical standard-setting processes

In early March, the Data Privacy Brazil Research Association contributed to an open call for inputs alongside the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Our team welcomes the call as an opportunity to submit inputs from civil society organizations to inform the report by the OHCHR on the relationship between human rights and technical standard-setting processes for new and emerging digital technologies.

In this blog post, we have provided a summary of our contribution, but we would like to extend a warm invitation to you to take a look at our full text here – we highly encourage you to read it for a more comprehensive understanding of our inputs.

About this OHCHR´s call for inputs 

The call for input follows the Resolution 47/23 of the UN Human Rights Council on “New and emerging digital technologies and human rights.” The resolution urges the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights “to convene an expert consultation to discuss the relationship between human rights and technical standard-setting processes”, and requires a report to be submitted “reflecting the discussions held in an inclusive and comprehensive manner”. Hence comes the open call, for all interested parties to provide their contributions, which will serve precisely for the preparation of the thematic report. It is expected to have this report presented to the Human Rights Council at its fifty-third session, which is usually scheduled to begin in June.

The call proposes some guiding questions, which, albeit not meant to be exhaustive, indicate areas of particular interest for the drafting of the report. Among the proposed questions, we have selected two on which we have focused our submission, as follows:

How accessible are standard-setting processes and processes for new and emerging digital technologies for a broad range of stakeholders, in particular for civil society organizations and human rights experts? By which metrics is “access” measured in this context?

It has been claimed that the standardization of a decentralized Internet infrastructure can support and enable a variety of applications that can harm fundamental rights, like China’s social credit system, which uses identifiers to link people to a permanent record and affect their ability to social and economic transactions mediated by technology. Standards might lead to more control over networks and users’ data and would imply a multilateral governance system for the Internet through the ITU. Standards for New IP systems could also harm privacy rights. With hard-coded addresses and identifiers, the protocol could lead to tracking and the network can be instructed to disconnect devices or discard packets. Also, Standards for IPs could “enable the creation of permanent profiles on individuals”. However, access to standard-setting processes for new and emerging digital technologies for civil society organizations and human rights experts is more limited. Because of their long-term structures and highly technical languages, dominated by engineers, they are not perceived as key spaces for advocacy by civil society actors.

For these groups, this limitation tends to persist in the different technical forums in a very similar way. We designed a qualitative study with representatives of members of Global South organizations and our preliminary results show that the engagement with standard-setting organizations is really limited.

Technical standard-setting processes usually take place within traditional institutions. Commonly, these institutions have challenging participatory processes. Since their main activities are related to the setting of technical standards, the main actors involved in such an ecosystem are representatives of the technical community, such as engineers and IT specialists.

Historically, the debates of technical standards and human rights considerations have been occurring separately, impeding, thus, the integration of human rights considerations into technical standards, since there is a lack of dialogue between the technical community and human rights specialists. In this sense, those discussions must meet a multistakeholder criteria, so it would be possible to establish a broader technology governance model. Moving forward, it is possible to say that there is a technical barrier in all these spaces. It’s closely linked to its profile and technical language (there is the constant use of acronyms and technical terms), which these processes tend to privilege, and in which most civil society organizations and human rights experts do not have a comfortable level of knowledge/domain.

This technical-approach barrier is a first-level problem. But, there are also exogenous structural barriers – instilled in these spaces – that although tend to reach all civil society organizations and part of the human rights expert community, disproportionately, and systematically, impact more those coming from the Global South. Reproducing and reinforcing systemic elements of power asymmetries between developed countries (or the Global North), and Global South countries, underdeveloped. This, in itself, indicates a wide range of more structural challenges, which arise as barriers:  (i) to entry; (ii) to permanency;  (iii) and to due/effective participation once inside the forum. We believe that access cannot be measured only by the possibility of an organization being part of the standards creation bodies. It is necessary to formulate permanent participation indicators that can be adopted by IEFT, ICANN, W3C, ITU and others. It is also possible to recommend the use of AI systems (such as Fireflies) to measure the speaking time of people from the Global North compared to people from the Global South, as well as to generate better open documentation on the nature of discussions in technical spaces.

What are the challenges faced by various stakeholders in their meaningful and sustainable participation in technical standard-setting processes for new and emerging digital technologies?

Civil society organizations face several challenges when participating in standard-setting bodies. Here we highlight some of them:

  • The scarcity of resources available to attend all the meetings and follow all the discussions. These organizations have limited budgets, and attending multiple meetings in various locations can be financially taxing, which affects their participation;
  • Asymmetry of information exists in these standard-setting bodies. For example, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is divided into silos, and they do not communicate with each other. This situation makes it challenging for civil society organizations to keep up with the discussions and make informed contributions.
  • Most of these forums are located in the Global North, making it difficult for civil society organizations from the Global South to participate. The cost of visas, travel and accommodation can be a significant financial burden, which hampers participation.
  • Civil society organizations from the Global North tend to be better funded than those in the Global South. This disparity means that they have more resources to invest in participation in standard-setting bodies, giving them an unfair advantage.
  • The majority of funders for civil society organizations tend to be from the Global North and are not always in sync with the realities of what is required in the Global South, such as capacity building. As a result, Global South activists are only invited once an agenda is set, which means that important issues to  Global Southern countries are often not included in the agenda. In a scenario where resources are scarce, it is challenging to justify hiring someone with technical knowledge to participate in these meetings without clear results.
  • The closed processes and systems that do not allow sharing of finalized standards, which prevents civil society organizations from accessing critical information, hindering their ability to make informed contributions.
  • Finally, civil society organizations need government stewardship and a good relationship with the government to be part of the country delegation. This situation can be challenging, especially in countries where the government may not be receptive to civil society participation in standard-setting bodies. Furthermore, some workgroups may require a paid membership, which is an additional financial burden for civil society organizations.

To read the full text, click here