Human rights in digital times
Digital technologies provide new means to advocate, defend and exercise human rights, but they can also be used to suppress, limit, and violate them. By living in a Digital Society, the Internet is an extension of everyday life, and as human rights exist in our reality, they exist online, demanding to be respected in their entirety. Several international UN Bodies have called for the use of the new technologies as means to protect, advocate and exercise human rights. There’s currently a high need for developing further guidance on how to apply human rights during the digital age, making sure that technology products, policies, practices, and terms of service comply with their standards and principles.
The spread of disinformation, harmful content and an inappropriate law enforcement can exacerbate existing discriminations and erode human rights. According to the UN, some areas are more vulnerable to deepen already existing inequalities.
On top of the list is data protection and privacy. The importance of protecting the right to privacy has never been so urgent as during our time. Statistics show that around 15 billion personal records were exposed just in 2019. One reason might be that the current financing model of social media platforms encourages the collection of users’ data for marketing purposes, tailoring personal consumption patterns.
From data protection, another issue arises: digital identity, whose systems are frequently designed outside the frameworks of privacy. Although serious breaches of privacy happen mainly within the private sector, Governments are no strangers to such situations. Surveillance technologies, namely facial recognition, can result in human rights violations, lead to arbitrary detentions and arrests if not cement existing social biases, resulting in situations in which marginalized people are discriminated against. It is therefore critical that legislation and safeguards are in place to protect people from unlawful or unnecessary surveillance, including any arbitrary surveillance carried out by external actors in cyberspace.
Another fundamental area of vulnerability is the one regarding online harassment, in all its forms. Hate speech, disinformation campaigns, religious hate, gender-based violence and defamation are all forms of discrimination that perpetuate and entrench inequalities in the space, leading several individuals to “log off” for their protection.
In this context, the Internet has to provide a safe space for all its users. Generic blocking and filtering services might be of aid, but they can also become a mechanism of violation of international human rights. A careful approach is required by internet users, both public and private, to ensure that all online actions are aligned with human rights obligations.