Cybersecurity, the subject of this month's Minnesota International Center's "Great Decisions" dialogue, is a hot topic in the Beltway, Silicon Valley and on Wall Street. It's also an important subject in Foggy Bottom and Turtle Bay, the homes of the U.S. State Department and United Nations, respectively.
Yet both those international institutions seem just as concerned about cyber-insecurity, or how repressive regimes react to the Internet. Specifically, do human rights apply in the digital space?
More than 80 countries cosponsoring a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution say they do. In July they declared, among other principles, that the resolution "affirms that the same rights that people have offline must be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one's choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
Translated: "What this resolution, which we support, did is say that the same human rights that are elaborated in international law -- the freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly -- apply online as well as offline," said Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor at the State Department.
The resolution isn't revolutionary in free societies, but it may be for authoritarian nations threatened by the Net.
"The Internet exists as a space that is largely more democratic than the spaces that are more directly controlled by governments, and that's where the fundamental tension arises. So it's not surprising that repressive regimes find it very challenging," said Baer.
It's not just governments that face the fast-changing challenges new media makes possible. Citizens and journalists -- and, increasingly, citizen-journalists -- are often targeted because of their online activity.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that of the 179 journalists jailed worldwide in 2011, nearly half worked primarily online. And so far this year, of the 53 journalists killed, 42 percent worked online. The Net's essential nature, which lends itself to online opining, especially imperils journalists.
"There has been a trend in international regulation of this new media to look at Internet speech as somehow different, more dangerous, more problematic," said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. "This is not a new phenomenon. Each time a new medium of communications is explored, the threats to society as a whole are vivid in people's minds. There were similar panics over radio and TV communications."
And yet the Internet, because of its decentralized, individualized nature, is fundamentally different than other media, which require more infrastructure, investment and, in many nations, a license.
Although sometimes it's not access, but ensnarement, that's even more insidious, said Scott Edwards, director of crisis prevention and response at Amnesty International. Edwards recalled how Syria stopped blocking Facebook as the Arab Spring began to flower, so the government could identify dissidents.
"It's not just a problem of denial of service, where governments will cut off certain social- networking tools and information," Edwards said. "But likewise, we need to be concerned about monitoring of governments about what people are doing online because that opens it up to repressive tactics."
Efforts to support freedom of expression online can be both multilateral, as represented by the U.N. resolution, as well as bilateral, such as when the United States discusses human rights and trade with nations. Admirably, the State Department has led rhetorically and financially: By the end of 2012, the agency will have committed $100 million in global efforts to advance the resolution's objectives.
It's easy to be skeptical, or even cynical, about the prospect of diplomats shaming dictators into better behavior. But it's important to go on the record with human-rights requirements. Then the standard is known, and nations in violation can be called out.
"The stamp of international acknowledgment and legitimacy that has been given to Internet freedom is important, just as international human-rights treaties are important," said PoKempner. "Even if they are observed in the breach, because they establish a norm and an expectation.
"They can't say the standard doesn't exist anymore."
Unlike with the instantaneous Internet, progress may be slow. It usually is on human rights. But by giving envoys and advocates new tools, progress has already begun.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.