Digital rights

Digital rights are vital for sustainable development

Image by: Spiff, via CC BY-SA 4.0

The Third Committee (C3) of the United Nations General Assembly addresses a range of human rights, humanitarian affairs, and social issues worldwide. In its 74th session (“UNGA74”) last fall, the Third Committee considered more than 60 thematic and country-specific resolutions, including the Resolution on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity

Access Now joined 15 other organizations to review the outcomes of UNGA74 – see our infographic – including the critical importance of civil society engagement. The President of the General Assembly then held an informal meeting on February 3, 2020 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City to provide space for Member States and civil society to share their thoughts on the outcomes of UNGA74. The meeting particularly highlighted the link between the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and the work of the Third Committee.

Access Now took the floor. During the February 3 meeting, Peter Micek, our General Counsel and U.N. Policy Manager, presented the following statement:

Emerging risks and missed opportunity to protect digital rights at United Nations General Assembly, 74th Session 
Delivered at the Informal Meeting of the Third Committee of the General Assembly with civil society, Feb. 3, 2020

Thank you, Chair. 

Access Now is an international organization that defends and extends the digital rights and security of users at risk. Through representation in 14 countries, we provide policy recommendations to the public and private sectors to ensure the continued openness of the internet and protection of fundamental rights.

We engage with an action-focused global community, convene stakeholders through the RightsCon Summit Series, subgrant funding to frontline organizations, and operate a 24/7 Digital Security Helpline that provides real-time direct technical assistance to at-risk individuals and communities worldwide.

Access Now worked for several years to gain ECOSOC accreditation and indeed enjoy this opportunity to exercise our status, while lamenting the difficulty that many of our partners face in accessing this and other forums at the United Nations. 

According to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, over 90 percent of the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDG) targets are connected to international human rights and labor.

The 2030 Agenda is grounded in human rights, and protecting human rights is necessary to reach the SDGs. We believe that extending secure and open access to the internet is essential to the exercise of human rights in the digital age, and therefore to reaching the SDGs. 

Too many people remain offline — often by malicious design — or are limited to censored and surveilled connections. As the General Assembly’s human rights body, the Third Committee plays a crucial role in ensuring respect for digital rights, and towards achieving the SDGs. The work of this institution must ambitiously, robustly, and urgently integrate respect for human rights online, and promote attention to the opportunities and impacts of ICTs in every resolution and workstream. The Third Committee must engage in a more holistic and timely attention to emerging risks. 

Access Now joins several organizations through the Human Rights @UNGA74 worksheet, detailing the joint findings of a broad spectrum of civil society organizations on the outcomes of the U.N. General Assembly Third Committee. We are glad to speak to this analysis with your delegations. We would like to take this opportunity to address some emerging risks and missed opportunities we identified. 

First, we find that the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity Resolution missed an opportunity to raise the pressing issue of government hacking, despite high-profile state-sponsored attacks on journalists last year and the failure of international frameworks to address these violations and the companies facilitating them. These attacks on privacy and dignity directly obstruct those actors key to achieving SDG 16.10, among others. Opening the “informal” Third Committee drafting sessions to participation by civil society organizations — who harness the knowledge on pertinent issues collected from rights holders’ experiences — can help close such gaps as evident in this resolution.

Second, internet shutdowns are on the rise. We see censorship of the free and open internet as a bar to achieving the SDGs specifically targets 16.4, 16.6, and 16.7 — even if the goals themselves avoid any language on freedom of expression, privacy, and related human rights. Data collected by Access Now and the #KeepItOn campaign — a coalition of over 210 CSOs from over 100 countries — found that in 2019 at least 201 internet shutdowns were reported compared to 196 in 2018, 108 in 2017, and 75 in 2016. Internet shutdowns occur on every continent, from Algeria and Bangladesh to Iran, the U.K. and Zimbabwe, with many occurring in India. Shutdowns damage educational, economic, and health outcomes, specifically in countries that are just beginning to benefit from widespread connectivity. The Third Committee should monitor such disruptive actions as internet shutdowns through annual reporting, informed by civil society and with full participation of responsible State parties.  

Third, digital identity (Digital ID) programs broadly impact human rights. SDG target 16.9 calls for legal identity for all, but not for mandatory collection of highly sensitive biometric data in a centralized manner which many of these Digital ID programs require. The purpose for new digital ID systems is rarely clear, or offered up for public scrutiny. Many digital identity programs suffer from mission creep — wherein they are linked to multiple facets of a user’s life — without adequate justification and protections provided to users. The safeguards in law and policy for human rights are incomplete, and the implementation burdens the most vulnerable. To fulfill its mandate, the Third Committee must reach into the realm of development programs, and speak to the economic, social, and cultural rights — as well as civil and political — impacted by new technologies. 

Access Now, and our partners in the digital rights space, see the international human rights legal framework as best placed to handle the rapidly scaling, global nature of the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. We increasingly look for ways to provide input into the work of the Third Committee and related bodies, and commit our support to your efforts.