Requiem for a Dream: on Advancing Human Rights via Internet Architecture

A growing number of scholars and policymakers are calling attention to the relationship between
technology standards, protocols, human rights, ethics, and values—also claiming that human rights
can be secured (or violated) via the Internet’s standards and architecture. However, this assertion of
governance through Internet architecture can oversimplify the complex relationship between
technology and society. This article argues that human rights are primarily a political and
institutional accomplishment, not a simple matter of technical design. By articulating a challenge to
uncritical and imperfectly theorized efforts to link standards-setting and protocol development to
“values” and human rights objectives, we hope to foster a more realistic approach to Internet
standardization and governance processes and a more balanced and well-informed theoretical debate.
Situated in the theoretical literature on science, technology, and society, our analysis is also
informed by extensive empirical exposure to standardization and Internet governance processes. It
includes two short case studies in which standards development and rights issues have intersected
in ways that illuminate the relationship between rights and standards, and which can be interpreted
to falsify certain claims.