The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Event report: Science and Academic Freedom in the Digital Age

9 November 2012

The movement to protect Internet freedom - the exercise of human rights online - has important implications for the work of scientists and engineers. What are the opportunities for collaboration, and how can developments in internet policy influence broader science and human rights issues? At AAAS headquarters in DC, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, discussed the overlapping interests that connect science, technology and human rights.

Michael Posner presented and discussed elements of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share scientific advancement and its benefits”.

Posner argued that Article 27 envisions a world, where everyone has the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. However, such rights cannot be realized without the climate of free expression, which is essential to thinking and research that produces scientific advancement in the first place. Unfortunately, great divides persist when it comes to equal participation in- and benefit from science. Much has to be done in working towards a world where everyone shares scientific advancement, and where science and human rights advance simultaneously. While Posner’s talk mainly drew from Article 27, these rights are also enshrined in Article 15 of the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which states that people have the right “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.”

Posner emphasized that just as exchange of information and scientific collaboration and education is happening online, today’s restraints and repressions are happening online. “Scientific freedom will not exist without Internet freedom. This is academic freedom in the digital age”, Posner said. The Internet was used as an example of how the rights set forth in Article 27 are under threat, and Posner also offered suggestions as to what Article 27 should and hopefully will come to mean in the near future.

First, the freedom of individuals to seek, receive and impart information about scientific progress, in any discipline is unfortunately imperiled in many parts of the world. Particularly in authoritarian countries there are many instances of academics subjected to online surveillance and harassment - student communications have been monitored; controversial conversations have been ended; and hundreds of students have been expelled for what they posted on social media websites.

Secondly, governments should aim to ensure that the benefits of science and technology are available without discrimination. Governments in some countries deny citizens the opportunity to benefit from the Internet. Posner gave the Government of Cuba as an example, where citizens are left with the slowest and most expensive connections in Latin America if they are even allowed access.

The third implication of Article 27, which is related to the second, is that scientific advances must not be used to commit human rights abuses. However, in recent examples governments have used the internet and other technologies to track and silence various activists.

Posner highlighted that these threats, mentioned above, concerns scientists as much as they do human rights activists and went on to talk about how the US is working to protect these rights. Part of U.S. foreign policy is aimed at helping citizens around the world access scientific and technical advances and knowledge. A total of 18 countries dedicated to protecting the rights-enabling nature of the Internet, have worked together to pass a consensus resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council (in July 2012), declaring that human rights apply online. Examples were given of various programs that are in place in the US and Posner estimated that by the end of this year his department will have funded over $100 million in internet freedom programs since 2008.

Together with the State Department Posner has identified two phenomena occurring at the same time throughout the world: 1. The enormous progress and intellectual ferment produced by the interdisciplinary cooperation between scientists, other academics, human rights workers, diplomats, NGOs and businesses; and, 2. The enhanced use of technology in some countries to monitor, censor or prevent free expression through e.g. threat, interrogations or detentions.

Posner pointed to the importance of ensuring quality science education at all levels; removing barriers to scientific freedom; encouraging international cooperation and the free flow of scientific knowledge and argued that although scientists, human rights activists and diplomats approach the world from different vantage points, they reach for some of the same goals. “Scientific fact is not bound by borders, and neither are human rights. Scientific truth does not change when governments change, and neither do the principles of human rights”, Posner said.

Posner finished his presentation by urging the scientific community, human rights activists and diplomats to work together in the effort to advance both science and human freedom and to speak up “in defense of thinkers and researchers around the world who are increasingly getting into trouble because of what they blog, tweet or text”.

Natasha Ann Brigham
The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

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                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin