Legal frontiers in digital media: human rights and social responsibility

A room full of eminent media and internet lawyers is perfectly comfortable with the intricacies of the DMCA, privacy considerations and defamation actions.  But when the Conference on Legal Frontiers in Digital Media (Stanford University, 21-22 May 2012) started to discuss social responsibility and human rights on the internet, some in the room were exploring unfamiliar territory.  Given my background advising government on legal cooperation in criminal matters and human rights law, this is when the conversation became really interesting for me.

The last session on Monday afternoon brought together a panel of Timothy L Alger (Perkins Coie), Erica Johnstone (Without My Consent), Betsy Masiello (Google), Ebele Okobi (Yahoo!) and Kurt Opsah (Electronic Frontier Foundation).  My head is abuzz with questions after this session and I have a long list of topics that I want to further explore.  Top of my list are the following questions:

  • Whose law and principles on human rights should US-based internet companies apply when determining their actions in countries around the world?  US law?  International law?  Local laws?  While we would not want freedom of speech on the internet to be reduced to the world’s lowest common denominator, how can US companies take a principled stance without imposing some kind of US cultural imperialism on the internet?
  • When internet companies enter new markets, what are the ways in which they can manage the risk of potential impact on human rights in those countries?  At what point does it become unacceptable to operate in a particular country?
  • Discussion about human rights in the online and social networking environment tends to focus on the protection of privacy and the freedom of expression.  Is this focus appropriate, or are there other rights that should be taken into account?
  • Are the human rights considerations that are relevant for internet companies responding to subpoenas in civil matters different from the considerations that are relevant in criminal proceedings?  Does the involvement of government actors such as police or the Department of Justice absolve the internet companies of their responsibility (moral or legal) to ensure that the information that they disclose will not lead to the abuse of an individual’s human rights?

These are such dense topics and they warrant closer consideration.  With this is mind, I plan to explore them at greater length in future blog posts.

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