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A2K and Human Rights

Posted by Lea on February 10, 2010

A2K4 logoThis weekend, February 11-13, 2010, the Yale Information Society Project will host its fourth major conference on access to knowledge, A2K4: Access to Knowledge and Human Rights.

I’ve had the privilege to be involved with all four of Yale’s A2K conferences, first as an ISP student fellow, and now as the director of its access to knowledge research program.

This year’s conference, however, is particularly close to my heart. For the first time, we’re approaching access to knowledge from the perspective of a particular theme: its intersection with human rights, the focus of two of my recent articles.

For the full agenda of the conference, as well as links to blog posts, archived video, and additional resources for each panel, please visit http://yaleisp.org/2010/02/a2k4main.

Below the jump, a summary of the opening remarks I will make on Friday morning…

Welcome to A2K4: Access to Knowledge and Human Rights.

For those who may be new to access to knowledge issues, a few words on what we mean by “A2K.”

The access to knowledge movement emerged as a reaction to the 1994 TRIPs Agreement, which dramatically changed the way that intellectual property is regulated internationally.

The philosophy that TRIPs embodied may be described as “IP maximalism” — the belief that the more strongly intellectual property is protected, the better. The A2K movement emerged out of organizations that criticized that approach, pointing out a number of ways in which stronger IP protection was harmful to the public interest.

The best-known area of activism is around access to essential medicines, such as treatments for HIV, that was endangered by new patent rules. But the A2K movement is much broader; concerned also with the ways that IP rules limit access to educational materials, seeds, cultural works, and IT software and hardware.

The concerns of the A2K movement also extend beyond intellectual property. They encompass Internet governance, innovation and technology policy, and competition regulation. The unifying feature is a concern to preserve, protect, and advance the quality of knowledge as a public good all should enjoy access to.

“Knowledge” here refers not only or primarily to luxury goods like a Yale education, access to fine literature, or a high-speed Internet connection. The A2K movement is particularly concerned with the ways in which access to knowledge impacts the lives of the poor and vulnerable. For example: control over crop seeds, affordable medicines, and primary textbooks.

In this light, it’s natural to draw a connection to human rights. As we’ll see over the next two days, access to knowledge impacts civil liberties such as freedom of expression and privacy. As well as issues of distributive justice such as access to education, health care, and science and culture.

Just because A2K concerns can be articulated in terms of human rights, however, does not compel the conclusion that they should. Indeed, there are very much two sides to this debate.

On the one hand, human rights offers an international normative and legal framework from which to critique the recent approach to IP. Because rights-based arguments have some qualities of a “trump” to them, they may open up new avenues for advocacy and legal challenge.

It is far from clear, however, that such efforts will be effective in shifting the dynamics of existing struggles over IP. Many in the A2K community are highly skeptical of rights-based approaches, having heard many times the claim that intellectual property rights are human rights.

In the words of scholar Kal Raustiala, “It remains to be seen whether the marriage of human rights and IP will make international IP rights more socially just, or just more powerful.” Kal Raustiala, Commentary: Density and Conflict in International Intellectual Property Law, 40 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1021, 1037 (2007).

The very dual-edged nature of this dilemma only reinforces the conclusion that the A2K community cannot afford to ignore the human rights debate, any more than the human rights community can afford to ignore access to knowledge concerns.

This weekend’s conference is an opportunity to explore in depth the issues encountered at the intersection of access to knowledge and human rights. Our esteemed panelists will be addressing three central questions:

In what ways do intellectual property, Internet governance, technological regulation and innovation systems impact human rights — both civil liberties as well as socioeconomic rights?

How can leveraging rights-based methodologies, arguments, and institutions advance A2K goals? What new risks might these strategies carry?

As we move toward greater collaboration between the human rights and A2K communities, wherein lie the greatest opportunities and challenges, and how can we rise to meet them?

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