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Can human rights survive the digital age? Only if we do these things

It’s Human Rights Day — a time to celebrate the achievements of the international human rights community, but also to reflect on what we can do better. Are we rising to meet the challenges of safeguarding human rights in the digital age, or letting the opportunities slip past us? 

Today we share a speech by Brett Solomon, Executive Director of Access Now, which was presented on December 3 at the Glion Human Rights Dialogue 2020, a virtual version of the annual gathering of state delegates and ambassadors to the United Nations, leaders of U.N. agencies, and other expert stakeholders, to exchange views on the impact of digital technologies on a range of human rights. 

Solomon argues that in 2020, we are at a “tipping point for human rights.” He maps out a pathway to take us away from failure to protect these rights — which has included abdicating responsibility and ceding control to the private sector — to a full implementation and vindication of these rights, not just in principle, but in policy and practice. 

My name is Brett Solomon and I am the Executive Director at Access Now. We are a ten-year-old NGO, with 80 staff all around the world and our focus is defending and extending the digital rights of users at risk.

I am going to make two comments which contradict each other, both of which I believe however are true. 

Firstly, the international human rights framework is failing us in the digital age.

Secondly, the international human rights framework has been remarkably resilient, despite the onslaught of new technology that defines the digital age.

What the future holds and which pathway we ultimately take — whether it be to failure on the one hand or protection on the other — will be determined by what we do now. 

We’re at a human rights tipping point. The Human Rights Council is therefore extremely important, and so is this meeting. 

That is why it is so good that the Secretary General and drafters of the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation put human rights at its very center, formally recognizing the need for a rights-based approach to digital cooperation. And recognizing the role of the Council in that endeavor.

I don’t believe that we are in need of the U.N. to further clarify human rights norms. U.N. institutions, procedures and international courts have provided important guidance already. This is a sign of its resilience and relevance. 

For example, right now the recent Germany and Brazil-led privacy in the digital age resolution at the U.N. General Assembly (see draft), which just passed out of the Third Committee, is headed to consensus adoption. 

It is a very good resolution — it addresses both states and companies, and recognizes that privacy and data privacy is at the very center of democracy and human rights. 

We have seen other examples of resilience: the Open Ended Working Group on Advancing responsible State behavior in cyberspace. Even the way the Human Rights Council itself during COVID-19 moved into a digital format demonstrates resilience and leadership. 

Our problem is once again application and implementation. And this is where there has been failure, and will continue to do so unless we move fast, firmly and honestly.

Hopefully some of what I am about to say will help forge a pathway to protection — and away from failure. 

  1. The digital age has just begun, but human rights have already taken a major hit. That is, there is no time for delay. As Ambassadors and U.N. officers, you must understand the current crisis we are operating in.
  2. Rapid digital acceleration is upon us — and COVID-19 will mean that we will never return to our analog world. That is, we must prepare for the future now. It is no longer okay to say you don’t understand technology. You understand more than you know. And if you are unsure of what you don’t know there are many expert organizations like my own, Access Now, who are here to advise you.
  3. No right will be spared. Technology started off disrupting expression and opinion, then moved swiftly to privacy and to the right to association. But now technology is impacting all rights. From health care to livelihoods to life. The Council must see its role across civil and political rights, as much as economic social and cultural rights.
  4. Technology is not just impacting our rights — it is threatening our democracy as misinformation campaigns and online hate risk becoming the norm rather than the exception. States and their legal systems must stand strong against these trends, including by not abdicating their role in determining the legality or otherwise of content to the private sector.
  5. Internet shutdowns — or intentional disruptions of the network — are becoming a norm: we have had 213 shutdowns last year — 2020 will be worse. But we can stop this practice. For example in June 2020, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice ruled that the September 2017 internet shutdown ordered by the Togolese government during protests is illegal and an affront to the right to freedom of expression.
  6. The exclusion of almost half the world’s population is one of the most entrenched global human tragedies we face. It’s 2020 and we still have almost half the world to connect! Connectivity has a disproportionate impact of digital divides on women, girls, racial, and ethnic minorities and those located in the Global South. That is, technology use is a racial and gender justice issue, and you should see it as such. Investing in your digital infrastructure is one of the best solutions we have to achieving rights.
  7. Governments are using securitization, terrorism, and now COVID-19 to take advantage to pass new cyber laws and practices that will weaken at-risk communities, human rights movements, and opposition movements. Ambassadors and human rights officials, your expertise is required to provide guidance and support for governments to pass democratic, fit-for-purpose, participatory, and human rights-based regulation.
  8. Online attacks on human rights defenders and actors for change are real and the problem is getting worse. We are being attacked and governments are not providing protection. In fact, sometimes they are the attacker. To ensure protection over failure, you must advocate to control your cyber commands and reassert human rights over cyber national security agencies.
  9. Technology is radically impacting humanitarian response. The dangers of digital ID systems to human rights are not being centered in development-oriented initiatives. See the iris-scanning by UNHCR and surveillance and data exploitation by private companies like Palantir, who struck a deal with the World Food Program. Humanitarian actors must understand and pre-empt the digital disruption of humanitarian response.
  10. Data protection is a fundamental right, and data exploitation is abuse and should not be tolerated. The digital age, including Al and biometrics, are based on data. Advocating for data protection frameworks, and regulating business models, like Facebook, that exploit data and manipulate users will strengthen the human rights framework.

These are not just issues that are happening “out there” —  the U.N. human rights system has a lot to answer for as it has allowed technology to get away from us. It has abdicated responsibility to the private tech sector, which has threatened the human rights framework and weakened the citizenry.

I myself am not an Ambassador, I have no flag, but to an extent we are a people’s ambassador. My message is that you must speak more clearly — and be heard by — others, such as other U.N. agencies, including in the realms of development and peace and conflict. 

This also means you must control and regulate the tech companies that operate within your jurisdictions to ensure they operate with human rights at the core. Tech companies should be accountable to democratic governments and users by proactively bringing transparency into their products, opening access to algorithms, and abandoning business models that exploit data and attempt to manipulate users.

These are essential elements in the pathway to protection instead of failure.