Q&A: Stanford’s Cuéllar and US diplomat on human rights and the Internet


As the Internet evolves, people around the world have faster, easier ways to connect. Innovative plans and economic opportunities are being hatched online, but so are ideas that challenge governments. Voices of dissent are amplified by social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, leaving some countries confused about how to balance free expression rights against perceived threats to national security and government stability.

Working with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Eileen Donahoe is trying to make government officials feel more comfortable with online technology. Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, recently brought about 35 diplomats from around the world to Stanford. The group met with academics, Internet developers and technology business leaders to address the questions posed by a free and open Internet.

“I know the technology feels mysterious and challenging,” says Donahoe, who was an affiliated scholar at CISAC before becoming an ambassador. “So part of what we tried to do was demystify it. But we also conveyed the message that you’re not going to control technological change. And you’d better get used to it. It’s part of our world.”

In the following interview, Donahoe and CISAC co-director Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar discuss the challenges and potential promised in the online frontier.

Why did you arrange this meeting of diplomats in Silicon Valley?

Donahoe: Some ambassadors who are otherwise very committed to human rights have started to feel that the protections for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly could be weakened or lessened when you bring technology into the mix. There was a sense that governments could legitimately squelch free speech and free assembly when it happened in the online world. That’s a problem because so much of what happens today happens online. The Internet is now so central to the ability to speak freely. It was our responsibility to call them out and make them understand that technology should not change the equation in the protection of human rights.

How has the Internet changed the way we need to think about human rights and free expression?

Donahoe: In some ways, it hasn’t changed anything – free speech is free speech. But new technology has created new media, and that’s all changing at an exponential pace. People are being required to adjust in timeframes that were unimaginable before, and governments can’t keep up. Individuals can hardly keep up. It’s the pace and innovation that’s challenging. But there’s no change in our responsibility to protect the longstanding values of free expression.

What does a free and open Internet have to do with global security?

Some governments lack a commitment to basic rights and the rule of law. Technology can help people respond by raising their voices. They can organize and respond when their own government threatens citizens’ security. Cyber technologies can also empower law enforcement officials, intelligence agencies and armed forces, raising fundamental questions about the role of government and the nature of conflict in the years to come. The Internet is an evolving technology that reflects vulnerability and enormous potential. Societies depend on government and private sector systems that face a variety of threats. For all these reasons, the future of cyberspace is an important security issue at the very center of our agenda at CISAC.

Why do some governments feel threatened by the Internet?

Donahoe: It comes from the volume of voices you can have online. It comes from the pace of change. And there’s another aspect to online technology that’s intriguing: It is inherently democratizing. Citizens are becoming journalists. Anyone with a cell phone can broadcast live to the planet anything they’re observing. That can be threatening, but I believe it’s ultimately going to be a very positive force for transparency and government accountability.

How do you convince governments worried about those threats that open Internet access is ultimately in their best interest?

Cuéllar: If the leaders of a state see it merely as a vehicle for control and stability, then much of the technology we have been discussing will appear profoundly threatening. States seeking to build or maintain lasting institutions capable of meeting the needs of their citizens will tend to take a different approach, focused on the value of the public’s feedback and participation in governance.

Donahoe: A compelling point – especially for developing countries that may not otherwise place emphasis on the benefits to freedom from technology – is the recognition that there’s an economic upside to a free and open Internet. It can be framed as a development issue. Many government leaders can see that the future of all our economies is so intricately connected to this technology that if they try to squelch or shut down Internet development for political reasons, there will be dramatically negative effects for their economies. And that will lead to political problems. The economic value isn’t my primary human rights emphasis, but it helps to remind governments they run the risk of shutting themselves out of economic development if they don’t get comfortable with the technology.

What role, if any, should governments play in regulating the Internet?

Donahoe: Governments do need to play a role in regulation, just as they do in the offline world. But just because technology is brought into the equation doesn’t mean governments and regulators should be free to regulate too broadly or without concern for the costs to freedom. Just like in the offline world, regulation must be narrowly tailored and serve important government interests. Part of the challenge comes from the sense that governments can’t keep up with the technological advances. So they’re inclined to regulate more – and more bluntly – rather than in a more tailored way. This is where governments need to get more sophisticated about how to adjust to technological change.

What do policymakers need to know and understand before passing regulations?

Cuéllar: The future of cyberspace implicates security, economic development and the protection of civil and political rights – and all of these challenges are deeply interrelated. A country\’s decision to restrict certain forms of Internet traffic can discourage economic innovation. Internet access in poor communities can lead to new economic opportunities, changing the larger context in which governance and security problems arise. It is crucial to recognize these connections as societies think through the future of cyberspace.