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How do human rights work on the web? Professor spoke at UN conference

Dec 6, 2023
3 min Read
Eugene Curtin
Professor Kelly visits conference in Kyoto.

Ensuring human rights transfer from the physical to the digital world is among the great battles of our time, says a Creighton professor whose expertise in the field led to his addressing a conference in Kyoto, Japan.

“A lot has changed since the internet started,” says Michael Kelly, JD, LLM, a Creighton University School of Law professor. “It really has taken on a life of its own. A third of people are online almost constantly, and well over 81% of people bop in and out of the internet all day long.

“So, if we are spending an increasing amount of our lifetime in digital space, then the question becomes, what rights follow us into that space?”

Kelly presented his research to the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum meeting in Kyoto, Japan. Kelly took all 30 of the rights and freedoms from the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — such as freedoms of speech, assembly and religion — and mapped them to the Internet to create a guide as to how those liberties extend to their online lives.

That new matrix adds to Kelly's longstanding prominence in international law and reflects his role as co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Internet Governance Task Force.

Key to online rights adoption, Kelly says, is connectivity and “net neutrality,” which means that all people globally should receive the same internet access in much the same manner as other services critical to human functioning.

If we are spending an increasing amount of our lifetime in digital space, then the question becomes, what rights follow us into that space?
— Michael Kelly, JD, LLM

Beyond those fundamentals, he says, issues of universality must be addressed. For example, right to privacy laws, known online as “the right to be forgotten,” have been enacted in the European Union. The European Court of Justice, however, has ruled that those laws apply only within the EU and do not, therefore, reflect a universal human right.

Forums such as the Kyoto conference are an important factor in the battle to maintain human rights in the new digital world, Kelly says. Authoritarian societies, he warns, such as those found in Russia, China and Iran are proposing global policies that would give governments complete control of internet content and access, to the exclusion of private stakeholders.

“If leaving Big Tech in charge of what rights you enjoy on their internet platforms is bad, imagine how bad it would be when those things are decided by (Russian president Vladimir) Putin,” he says. “The authoritarian states don't like all these other voices at the table. They want just states at the table, so we have got a re-envisioning going on in the field of international law, and we need to defend the multi stakeholder model.” 

Kelly published the research in partnership with David Satola, lead counsel for innovation & technology in the legal department at the World Bank. Their matrix tracking how well each liberty is digitally manifesting in cyberspace was published alongside a lengthy discussion of the hurdles facing integration of human rights into cyberspace in an article titled “Internet Human Rights” that appears in volume  27 of the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Social Change.