IGF 2022 Networking Session #32 Internet’s contrasts: rights/obligations, inclusion/exclusion, in/accessibility, dis/connection, ...

Tuesday, 29th November, 2022 (06:00 UTC) - Tuesday, 29th November, 2022 (07:00 UTC)
Banquet Hall B
  1. Dariusz Kloza, Universiteit Gent – Human Rights Centre (Belgium)
  2. Georgios Terzis & Mihalis Kritikos, Vrije Universiteit Brussel – Brussels School of Governance (BSoG) – Centre for Digitalisation, Democracy and Innovation (CD2I) & Olga Gkotsopoulou, Research Group on Law, Science, Technology & Society (LSTS) – Health and Ageing Law Lab (HALL) (Belgium)
  3. Giovanni De Gregorio, University of Oxford – Centre for Socio-Legal Studies – Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP) (United Kingdom); Universidade Católica Portuguesa – Católica Global School of Law – PLMJ Chair in Law and Technology (Portugal)
  4. Evelyne Tauchnitz & Peter Kirchschläger, University of Lucerne – Institute of Social Ethics (Switzerland)
  5. Rosanna Fanni, Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) – Digital Forum (Belgium)
  6. Paolo Passaglia, University of Pisa – Dipartimento di Giurisprudenza (Italy) Latin America
  7. Agustina Del Campo, Universidad de Palermo – Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (Argentina)

Opening statement [3 min.]
Evelyne Tauchnitz [Uni. Luzern]

Part One: Plenary Session [30 min.]

Cluster 1: rights/obligations
Paolo Passaglia [Uni. Pisa]
Dariusz Kloza [UGent]
Peter Kirchschläger [Uni. Luzern]

Cluster 2: inclusion/exclusion & in/equality
Anriette Esterhuysen [APC]
Georgios Terzis [VUB]
Rosanna Fanni [CEPS]

Cluster 3: dis/connection
Giovanni De Gregorio [Uni. Católica Portuguesa]
Nicole Stremlau [Uni. Oxford]
Agustina Del Campo [Uni. Palermo]

Cluster 4: in/accessibility
Olga Gkotsopoulou [VUB]
Quito Tsui [The Engine Room]

Part Two: Parallel breakout sessions [25 min.]

Cluster 1: rights/obligations – moderator: Peter Kirchschläger [Uni. Luzern]
Cluster 2: inclusion/exclusion & in/equality – moderator: Caitlin McGeer [Uni. Oxford]
Cluster 3: dis/connection – moderator: Moges Shiferaw [ACORD]
Cluster 4: in/accessibility – moderator: Quito Tsui [The Engine Room]

Closing remarks [2 min.]
Evelyne Tauchnitz [Uni. Luzern]


Further readings:

Cluster 1: rights/obligations

Cluster 2: inclusion/exclusion & in/equality

Cluster 3: dis/connection

  • Giovanni De Gregorio & Nicole Stremlau (2020) Internet Shutdowns and the Limits of Law, International Journal of Communication 14; https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/13752/3183
  • Nicole Stremlau & Giovanni De Gregorio (2021) Platform Governance at the Periphery: Moderation, Shutdowns and Intervention, in: J. Bayer, B. Holznagel, P. Korpisaari & L. Woods (eds.) "Perspectives on Platform Regulation: Concepts and Models of Social Media Governance Across the Globe", Nomos; https://doi.org/10.5771/9783748929789-433

Cluster 4: in/accessibility

Onsite Moderator

Evelyne Tauchnitz [Uni. Luzern]

Online Moderator

Olga Gkotsopoulou [VUB]


Mihalis Kritikos [European Commission]



Targets: Being a cross-cutting theme, internet 'contrast' - rights/obligations, inclusion/exclusion, in/accessibility, dis/connection, ... - affect a wide number of Sustainable Development Goals.


This networking session will be divided into two parts and will be held in a hybrid format. In the first half, we will have several short (interactive) presentations aimed at introducing the subject-matter. The second half will consist of a (digital) coffee break where participants can join different discussion tables and debate in a greater depth the critical issues for each ‘contrast’; each of these coffee breaks will be moderated. Participants will be able to come in and out of the conversation at their convenience, as they would during a coffee break. A report with the outcomes of these discussions will follow.

Duration (minutes)

This networking session will revolve around the following IGF22's theme: Connecting All People and Safeguarding Human Rights. It addresses, both from theoretical and practical viewpoints, the need to respond to a series of societal challenges, recently emerged or escalated, concerning internet (access), which are called here ‘contrasts’: rights/obligations, inclusion/exclusion, in/accessibility, dis/connection, in/equality, in/efficiency, progress/regress, etc. For instance, nowadays using the internet has increasingly turned from a mere option to an obligation as many essential services have moved to the digital sphere; while digital identification is needed to access most such services, not all users benefit therefrom; internet surveillance, censorship or shutdowns are on the rise, yet so are hate speech and disinformation; etc.

This networking session is open to policy-makers, researchers, civil society organizations as well as public and private sector actors interested in protecting and promoting human rights in the context of internet (access). We aim to set up an agenda for a debate and build a network of stakeholders in this area where theoretical reflection can be translated into concrete policy and/or legislative proposals.

The first part of the session (about 30 min.) will sketch the problem(s) and offer possible solution(s) in the format of a few short interventions per ’contrast’. The second part (about 25 min.) will critically analyse them during an informal coffee break around a few coffee tables devoted to each of the ‘contrasts’. Moderator’s remarks gathered during both parts will close this networking session (5 min.).

Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

1) The right to access (use) the internet gradually appears to turn into an obligation and an indispensable requirement for accessing essential services, raising serious issues of accessibility, digital divide and inclusivity. Hence, people should have a right not to use the Internet, subject to the proportionality principle, which would be complementary to the right to access (use) the Internet.

2) Looking at the issues of ethical inclusion through only the lenses of utilitarian, contractualist, deontological or discourse ethics is very restrictive. Virtue and care ethics should be used to see in equal light both the issues of inclusion and exclusion and to recognise the right of exclusion as a basis for the protection of human rights.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

The right to access (use) the internet needs to be carefully reconsidered contextually or even questioned in its form as an obligation, especially given the complex nature of the digital, biased practices as well as privacy, data protection and cybersecurity risks associated with the digital.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

The Session took place on Tuesday 29 November 2022, from 06:00 AM to 07:00 AM UTC, during the 17th IGF in Addis Ababa and online, and was moderated by Evelyne Tauchnitz (onsite) and Caitlin McGeer (online). The session explored four topics:

  1. the rights and obligations associated with accessing (using) the internet,
  2. the new forms of inclusion and exclusion as well as inequality,
  3. disconnection and connection, and
  4. meaningful access and inaccessibility.

It addressed, more specifically, both from the theoretical and practical viewpoints, the need to respond to a series of societal challenges, recently emerged or escalated, concerning the internet (access), which were called ‘contrasts’: rights/obligations, inclusion/exclusion, in/accessibility, dis/connection, in/equality, in/efficiency, progress/regress, etc.

Dariusz Kloza of the Universiteit Gent referred to the gradual transformation of the right (freedom, entitlement, option) to access (use) the internet into an obligation, especially in domains such as e-administration, and investigated the role of the existing human rights’ legal framework in protecting individuals from such an obligation. At least two solutions are possible: the introduction of a completely new, sufficiently defined, realistically implementable and enforceable human right not to access (use) the internet or, alternatively, an interpretation of the existing human rights, such as the freedom of expression or the right to privacy, so that one is free not to use the internet; coercion, in general, is something bad. Nonetheless, these approaches might be subjected to certain limitations, where the principles of proportionality would be of help. He posited that, eventually, the right not to access (use) the internet is consistent with the right to access it, and these two should co-exist.

Anriette Esterhuysen of the Association for Progressive Communications stressed the need to ensure inclusivity before further embedding or reinforcing access to the internet as most policy efforts that attempt to safeguard internetrelated human rights and digital inclusion overlook the actual infrastructural capacity. She noted that we sometimes overlook that this emphasis on digital inclusion always emphasizes the digital rather than the inclusion, and that the more that we embed or require access to digital tools to exercise human rights, the more we actually exclude people who do not have access to it. She argued that particular attention needs to be paid to the most excluded people in our societies to prevent the emergence of the digital inequality paradox. 

Paolo Passaglia of the University of Pisa introduced three different possibilities for defining the right to access the internet. The first is the right to access the internet as a freedom, the second is the access to the internet is a means to enable other human rights, whereas the third – most importantly – is the social right. It requires states to act, require funding etc. Based on this classification, the speaker raised the question about whether implementing access to the internet should go-by-hand with an effort to safeguard the internet that actually complies with the purposes for which it was originally conceived. His analysis questioned the gate-keeping role of digital service providers and whether the internet, in its current form, deserves the creation of a right and even the policy prioritization of the need to protect it as a social right, probably at the expense of other social rights.

Rosanna Fanni of the Centre for European Policy Studies talked about the geographical spread of digital identification systems, their advantages in terms of providing access to a wide range of services and the risk of them creating structural power imbalances between the state, businesses and citizens. Since 103 countries have implemented some form of digital identification systems that use biometric data, the speaker emphasized the privacy and cybersecurity challenges and concerns that are associated with the processing of particular biometric data and the disproportionate control governments have over those digital identification systems. According to Fanni, given that digital ID systems are gradually becoming gatekeepers to access an increasingly large amount of goods and services, there is a risk of exclusion for those, especially minorities, that do not fit a predetermined notion of identity by the government and the systems. She concluded by stating the need to more closely examine the impact on human rights, the rule of law, and the people who will be included or excluded from those systems.

Giovanni De Gregorio of the Catholic University of Portugal pointed out the problem of network disruption and the different technical forms that disconnection takes nowadays such as discriminating traffic or sensoring the digital space, or online spaces such as social media. The impact of these disconnection tactics on human rights and the way these measures are used or implemented require further analysis. The speaker argued that the right to an (internet) connection should not only be associated with the freedom of expression but also with the actual capacity to use the internet architecture to achieve also network access.

Olga Gkotsopoulou of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel highlighted the need to approach the term ‘access’ beyond the boundaries of internet access or access to information/knowledge/literacy and, at least, look for whom access is provided. The speaker made particular reference to the accessibility of digital information by people with disabilities, elderly people and the general need to contextualize when we think of access and accessibility in the internet context.

Quito Tsui of the Engine Room discussed the duality of accessibility and inaccessibility through the lens of biometric use in the humanitarian sector. She referred to the fact that many humanitarian organizations are increasingly employing the use of biometric information for tracking the recipients of aid. Beyond its obvious benefits (making registration systems faster and more efficient), the speaker highlighted the concerns related to the accessibility of these systems and the processing of highly sensitive, physical information that is immutable and utterly unique. She then reflected on the different manners in which inaccessibility in the realm of digital technologies could be conceived. These include physical inaccessibility by those that do not have fingerprints or do not have sufficiently legible fingerprints to be recorded; the intricacies of the refugee/citizen registration system and the issue of biometric illiteracy that raises concerns related to the asymmetry of information that prevents true consent. The speaker concluded by bringing forward the issue of how technology increases the barrier to meaningful access for some of the most vulnerable individuals who are attempting to access their fundamental rights.

Georgios Terzis of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel introduced and noted six different ethical lenses to approach digital inclusion/exclusion, namely the utilitarian, contractualist, deontological, discourse, virtue and care ethics. These were explained in detail, especially concerning how they apply and affect the accessibility of digital services and technologies. He then argued in favour of the balanced approach of virtue ethics as it looks at issues such as deficiency/the digital divide, excess/obligatory accessibility and inclusivity through the golden medium of maintaining the right for inclusion and the right not to use the internet. Furthermore, he argued in favour of a care ethics approach in which digital inclusion should be determined on contextual reasoning and respond to individuals in their specific circumstances based on embedded relations of care and responsibility. Empathy and compassion should be used to determine what is a fair action rather than merely calculating utility, thus respecting the right of those who want or need to be excluded. A care ethics public policy of the information society should also be more holistic and consider among others educational support, fair wages, environmental protection, and respect of privacy alongside critical infrastructure and in addition take into consideration the physical, psychological, digital and financial risks of an information society obligatory inclusion. In concluding his presentation, he raised questions about the ethical dilemmas and ‘status’ of those people who do not want to be part of this particular version of information society and/or their right not to be involved and embedded into the framework of digital services and online identification systems that is under development.

Peter G. Kirchschlaeger of the University of Lucerne referred to the fact that human rights standards which are in place and enforced offline are not enforced well online, and do not appear to enjoy the same level of protection. He then introduced the idea of safeguarding a human rightsbased digital transformation and human rights-based databased systems (HRBDS) as a means of benefitting from ethical opportunities and managing the relevant ethical risks and responding to the enduring digital human rights violations. He brought forward the idea of establishing powerful and well-equipped regulatory mechanisms that could take the form of an UN-based regulatory agency in the field of digital transformation and databased systems as well as in the field of the internet – the International Databased Systems Agency DSA. This international regulatory authority could supervise the terms of the ongoing digital transformation and tackle the relevant human rights’ challenges. The establishment of the DSA is realistic because humanity has already shown in its past that we are able to not always “blindly” pursue and implement the technically possible, but also to renounce, restrain, or limit ourselves to what is technically feasible when the welfare of humanity and planet Earth are at stake. For example, humans researched the field of nuclear technology, developed the atomic bomb, it was dropped several times, but then humans substantially and massively limited research and development in the field of nuclear technology, in order to prevent even worse, despite massive resistance. This suppression was successful to the greatest possible extent, thanks to an international regime, concrete enforcement mechanisms, and thanks to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the UN. He concluded by emphasizing the need to act on a global level to address the ethical challenges in this area, but also as a means to benefit better from the ethical opportunities that these technologies create.

In the discussion that followed, the main question raised was about whether increased digitalization and internet access have helped to shape more rightsbased societies and governance frameworks, both in the Global North and the Global South, and whether the proposed right not to access (use) the internet is also relevant and important in the developing world. Peter G. Kirchschlaeger acknowledged the opportunities offered in the areas of egovernance, evoting and access to information and emphasized the need to tackle business models, which have in their core human rights violating practices. Anriette Esterhuysen emphasised that the focus on the interconnection among all human rights has been lost and there is a need to start talking also about the protection of social and economic rights. 

Within this frame, the speakers referred also to the complementarity between the right to access (use) the internet and not to access (use) the internet. Last but not least, Evelyne Tauchnitz of the University of Lucerne (moderator) concluded these discussions will be ongoing, as - among others - we do not only need more internet, but we also need a free and universal Internet that promotes not only civil and political rights but also economic and social rights.

Report by Mihalis Kritikos (European Commission; the views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of the European Commission).