Human Rights in Cyberspace

Society of Legal Scholars Conference (SLS) 2010

13 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2010

See all articles by Audrey Guinchard

Audrey Guinchard

University of Essex - School of Law

Date Written: September 15, 2010


Human rights emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries Europe, as an articulation of the relationship between individuals and the powers of the time. The various Bills of Rights and Declarations of Rights created put the accent on the liberty of the individual understood as body and mind resisting the machine of power that are Governments: power to imprison without reason, power to invade homes, power to open correspondence, power to censor information and knowledge, power to raise taxes without consent from subjects nor accountability, etc… The Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment created the society we are living in, with democracy and a nation-state. This situation seems so intrinsic to what our Western societies are that we do not think today of human rights as a daily struggle against our Governments in order to establish the very principles of not opening our letters, not invading our homes without good reasons, or not kidnapping us because we dared expressed an opinion not fitting the official line. Those issues seem to belong to the past or to other countries where the basic human rights are still not established. The emergence of the World Wide Web did not appear to modify either the balance reached. Is it not a unique tool to organise militants and to circulate information so crucial to control governments? Is it not a new platform where liberty can flourish, where users can regulate themselves, create new communities with new rules using forums and now the social networking sites? And yet the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace penned by John Barlow in 1996 indicates a sleeping tiger in the process of waking up. Contrary to original hopes, Governments have since invested cyberspace, trying to reinstate borders on a space that was thought borderless. They now use cyberspace to conduct warfares, to monitor conduct data and content data, to censor, to open (e-mail) correspondence. The old struggle against States powers finds new expressions with many challenges to the rule of law as it came to be defined with the Enlightenment. Maybe more importantly, new struggles arise, with the growing power of private companies. Data mining and profiling of consumers/users, the ambiguous position of online service providers ‘torn apart’ between the necessity to make profits and the call for ethical conduct when precisely are at stake human rights, the hunt some private companies conduct to fight what they present as a threat of intellectual property rights, the temptation to collude or surrender to Governments’ will, are all current issues that question the accountability not necessarily of Governments, but of private companies or lobbies using cyberspace. How can one articulate human rights in this new geography of power? Should it be? Does the protection of human rights rest ultimately on educating citizens so that they have the basic computer literacy skills to understand what technology does and how it can be manipulated to infringe their privacy and their anonymity by the old and new powers of the time?

Keywords: human rights, privacy, freedom of expression

Suggested Citation

Guinchard, Audrey, Human Rights in Cyberspace (September 15, 2010). Society of Legal Scholars Conference (SLS) 2010, Available at SSRN: or

Audrey Guinchard (Contact Author)

University of Essex - School of Law ( email )

Colchester, Essex CO43SQ
United Kingdom

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