Since its inception, the Internet has become a core delivery mechanism for human rights, particularly freedom of expression, but also the right to education, the right to association, and the right to political participation, among many others. As a steward over this global resource, ICANN plays a pivotal role in the exercise of these rights, and their policy decisions have profound impacts on the rights of billions of internet users. This gives rise to a novel conceptual challenge: what kind of human rights obligations attach to ICANN itself, and how should human rights be understood in the context of an organization which is not a government, nor an inter-governmental organization, nor a private sector corporation.

International human rights rules are primarily designed to bind States rather than private actors. There is, however, growing attention being paid to the human rights obligations that attach to corporations and other private sector entities. This is most prominently addressed in the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which formulates guidelines for avoiding private sector complicity in human rights violations. However, there is an increasing recognition that some private sector actors have a duty not just to avoid violating human rights, but that they also, in some circumstances, bear a responsibility to safeguard and even to promote human rights. This is particularly important to consider where the State has explicitly handed a key human rights oversight role to a non-State body, or where an entity effectively holds a monopoly position over a particular resource or function.

These conceptual challenges are in addition to the questions around whether and how human rights principles should be adapted to apply to online communications. Rather than creating a platform for an influential few, as newspapers or broadcasters do, the Internet facilitates speech directly by individuals, giving everyone a platform and access to a global audience. By the same token, however, this grants the intermediaries that facilitate online communication an unprecedented influence over individuals’ right to freedom of expression and access to information. This power has also attracted the attention of governments, which are placing increasing pressure on non-State actors to facilitate and/or participate in human rights violations, for example by acting to police particular user content, or handing over personal information about users.

All of this brings us back to ICANN, and its role in overseeing the domain name space, as well as in holding the ring between the different players that make online communication possible: including ISPs, registries, registrars, and other infrastructural components. Amending ICANN’s bylaws to ensure that the organization has a mandate to respect human rights is the first step, but it leads to far more challenging problems of defining what human rights mean in ICANN’s unique context. This is the conversation that the CCWP is helping to facilitate, as the diverse stakeholders in ICANN’s community come together to present their different visions of how human rights responsibilities apply to this novel ecosystem.

Post contributed by CCWP-HR Co-Chair Michael Karanicolas