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Internet protocols and human rights: Interplay or interdependence?

Published on 16 November 2020
Updated on 05 April 2024

The Internet, as we know it today, has evolved from a platform of the tech, academic, and research elite, to a tool for the general public, given its wide adoption by the mainstream modern society (Naughton, 2016). Without the benefit of hindsight, few could have predicted the evolution of the Internet and how it’s continuously being shaped by economic and social changes.

The Internet has been a catalyst of dreams. From democracy, to entrepreneurship and culture, it has empowered the rights-deprived, providing opportunities across all strata of society or, as Liddicoat and Doria (2012) described it, ‘ [The Internet] is a network that empowers at the edges, rather than the centre, rendering it a profoundly democratic and rights fostering platform’.

Recent developments, however, such as large-scale data breaches, surveillance programmes, and online campaigns that are undermining democratic institutions across the world, have had direct implications for fundamental human rights, such as the privacy and freedom of expression or association (Zalnieriute and Milan, 2019).

The development of the core Internet architecture, including the development of protocols (such as the Internet Protocol (IP), the domain name system (DNS), and the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP)) ultimately determine the social impact of the Internet, either as a tool of empowerment or a tool for increasing surveillance and the encroachment on individual freedoms. This post briefly addresses the BGP and its connection to selected Internet principles and human rights, and aims to outline the importance privacy has on the Internet architecture as a whole.

To an extent, the success of the Internet can be attributed to the limited top-down regulations (i.e., a ‘light-touch regulatory framework’) which enabled a free and open Internet to grow and flourish while companies produced unparalleled innovations (Pai, 2017). Nevertheless, a complex system of protocols and principles de facto ensures its functioning (Schaake, 2015). Internet protocols enable the exchange of information and data, thus permitting protocol standards (such as those developed and maintained by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)) to shape how information flows across the network. One can then infer that protocols have an influence on the digitally mediated open space that we refer to as the Internet, including the type of practices it enables and the rights it protects.

For most end users, the Internet human rights implications lie at the application level where Internet governance focuses on the perspectives of states and the private sector. Despite this, issues related to human rights extend beyond and encompass the logical layer of protocols.  

As an example, the routing system plays a central role in the functioning of the Internet, as it guarantees the routing of packets from one device to another or between users. It relies on the trust between the thousands of individual networks that make up the Internet. Network operators (or ‘routers’) use BGP to set up their routing operations, and, therefore, the way traffic flows (ISOC, 2018). Data that is intercepted, tapped, blocked, or changed by a third party (such as governments willing to monitor online activities and communications) has implications for user privacy and undermines the trust users place in the Internet. Such situations illustrate how routing considerations indirectly support trust, fostering the greater use of the Internet, and how their impact on privacy can directly weaken fundamental human rights. Furthermore, commercial routing considerations undermine net neutrality and the principle of universality, as the monetisation of routes can exclude users, and prevent them from expressing themselves online or joining online communities. This further impacts the complex interplay between the BGP, Internet principles, and human rights. This system of decentralised network routing has therefore significantly contributed to the expansion of the Internet, but has also allowed routing incidents, affecting both core Internet principles and human rights to occur (ISOC, 2018).

The last decade has taught us that privacy on the Internet does not exist or, at the very least, is under threat. By using the Internet, our personal data, including IP addresses, personal files, the content of our emails, our files stored on the cloud, and our browsing data, are in constant contact with Internet protocols. If these protocols do not provide sufficient privacy protection, users may see their right to freedom of expression significantly affected (ten Oever and Cath, 2017), weakening, for example, the democratic participation of individuals and communities that are at risk of state-led surveillance.

The Internet plays a central role in promoting individual online freedoms, and within a brief period, it has become the central global public forum (OHCHR, 2015). The embedding of strong privacy-by-design principles in the development of Internet protocols and standards reinforces both core Internet principles and the respect of human rights online. Upholding the right to privacy, as we have seen, has profound implications for other rights and freedoms (OHCHR, 2015). Providing a safe and privacy-enabling zone for individuals to express opinions and to collaborate is crucial for the Internet architecture.

As ten Oever and Cath (2017) observed, ‘the strong commitment to […] privacy in the Internet’s architectural design contributes to the strengthening of the Internet as an enabling environment for human rights’. More than simply ‘interplaying’, Internet protocols and human rights mutually reinforce each other, suggesting an interdependence without which the Internet cannot continue to serve its profoundly democratic potential.


Sébastien Monnet is a science diplomat and a member of the swissnex Network. Based in Singapore from 2013 to 2017, he held the position of Deputy to the Director of the former swissnex office and Science Counselor at the Embassy of Switzerland. Since 2018, he is the Science Counselor at the Embassy of Switzerland in Australia. He successfully completed Diplo’s online course Internet Technology and Policy: Challenges and Solutions.


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