In this talk, I explain what happens when human rights advocates try to change computer code, instead of legal code to protect human rights online. There is a growing chorus of policymakers and regulators calling on the tech sector to respect human rights and engage civil society, but very little empirical knowledge of what happens when they do. This talk is based on my ongoing ethnographic Ph.D. research at the Oxford Internet Institute. I spent four years with a small group of human rights advocates, including the ACLU and ARTICLE 19, that are attempting to make the Internet’s infrastructure more “rights respecting” by engaging technical Internet engineering organizations. I will present a detailed anthropological case study of how Internet engineers responded to the human rights efforts. I argue that the engineers’ shared view about the “non-prescriptive nature” of technology encourages them to resist the inclusion of human rights values. Their resistance to human rights matters for a number of reasons, not least because it is reflective of the broader abdication of responsibility seen in the tech sector and the difficulties of applying the human rights framework in the cultural context of Internet infrastructure.


Corinne Cath-Speth is a doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute. As a cultural anthropologist, she applies the tools of anthropology to the study of Internet governance, in particular, the culture of the often-opaque organizations that enable the technical functioning of the Internet. Within that context, she focuses on the participation of human rights and civil liberties NGOs, that are aiming to change computer code instead of legal code to effect social change. You can find her on twitter @C__CS or read more at