Technology disruption: rights, risks, and rules

Speech to the United Nations on 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 2018
Brett Solomon, Executive Director, Access Now

Human Rights Day 2018 Event

A discussion on the relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to today’s cutting-edge human rights issues of inequality, climate change and new technologies.

Thank you, Assistant Secretary General, I really am so honored to be here. I am humbled under the weight of its importance.

I want to pay tribute at the outset to those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to those who have fought and even died for it, to those countless and nameless who are living beneficiaries of its implementation.

In the same breath, I want to acknowledge and apologize to those for whom it has failed.

Let us witness this enduring Declaration, the scholars, the precedents, the defenders, and its universal vision of dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the side of history upon which I stand.

But history is moving faster than ever. Technology its engine, data as its oil.

Let us take a moment to stand firm at the 70th anniversary of this Declaration. Let us not listen to all the barbs of its enemies, or allow ourselves to be imperiled by the snipers of its abusers.

Instead, like a 70 year old friend, let us honor it. And simultaneously acknowledge its blemishes and its wise wrinkles.

Let us also envision what she will look like in 70 years in 2088, and how we might disrupt history’s ledger against his violators, and in favor of their beneficiaries.

I use three pronouns in one sentence here to signal that identity and gender can no longer be understood in binaries.

Across “any media” and “regardless of frontier,” Article 19 somehow managed to anticipate the internet, and inspires us to celebrate our human rights. They are inalienable, indivisible, and interdependent.

But unless it is reinforced with code, encrypted with protocols, programmed with laws and subject to transparency, it will continue to be hacked.

We are just at the beginning of the digital revolution, and our rights, the very ones contained in the 30 articles in the Declaration, risk looking more like an old piece of technology in the back of the drawer of our desk, than the open-source app store that we are all dreaming it could be.

My comments today are in three sections: First the Rights, then the Risks, and then the Rules of this digital revolution that we are all experiencing.

First, our Rights:
  • What does our right to privacy mean in the era of ubiquitous data collection, and in the midst of the countless data breaches and attacks on our personal information, which we and our families are subject to over and over again? Imagine here the democracy, healthcare, Indigenous, and information advocates who are monitored and spied upon relentlessly.
  • How do we exercise our right to free expression when the digital spaces that we increasingly inhabit are owned and controlled by private companies or by states who would do us no good? Imagine here the lonely LGBT+ youth whose content is attacked, taken down, and hacked.
  • How is the right to information possible for the millions — wait, the billions — who are trapped behind firewalls or pounding the paywalls? Imagine here the criminalized blogger in these years post-Arab Spring or the millions of refugees and displaced persons clamoring for information about the state of their families and their homelands.
  • How do we protect our right to non-discrimination in the age of the algorithm, where offline bias is baked into a digital prejudice which we have no power to influence or escape? Imagine here the criminalized and racially profiled.  

As you will see, this is no longer a question of digital rights of the civil and political variety, but the disruption or subversion of all rights across the spectrum, from the economic, to the social to the cultural.

Now for the Risks.

Technology is not only upending long-held rules which have, at least nominally, protected our rights, but it is also introducing new risks which are threatening to replicate, and even exacerbate, more traditional and longstanding risks to our human rights.

Here I’d like to draw attention to connectivity itself. As more and more of our ability to exercise and enjoy our rights comes to depend on the internet, or on digital tools and technologies — what happens to those who have not yet been connected to the internet, who face the end of Net Neutrality, have little digital literacy, or who are forcibly disconnected from the internet through the use of shutdowns? We must #KeepItOn.

And paradoxically, I also want to wave a red flag about the perils of over-connectivity and in particular the dangers of digital identity programs, which have many benefits, and many more dangers, especially when used in combination with near-perfect facial recognition, biometric databases, the lack of data protection frameworks, algorithmic decision making without redress, and pinpoint accuracy of geolocation tools.

That makes connectivity both essential to participation and the building block for the authoritarian state.

Now for the Rules.

Our challenge is to identify and solidify the norms, the laws, the regulations, and the innovation that can protect our human rights.

Here is the first bright spot: the Human Rights Council unanimously passed Resolution 20/8 on the Promotion, Protection, and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, which affirmed “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”

But how do we ensure our rights are respected when the rules governing the enjoyment and protection of those rights have not yet been written? Or are being written by those who do not understand their implications or are willfully undermining them?

It is the duty of the State to protect our rights. But country after country has failed us, and increasingly fails us, in democracies and non-democratic states alike. For example, in dozens of countries, encryption (the pathway to privacy) is now illegal or being seriously undermined — as in my own country.

Companies are also obligated to protect, respect, and remedy our rights. But who in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley, or Bangalore, or Nanjing is a human rights lawyer? Show me the tech startups that are interested in international law over market share. Companies know more about their users than the most sophisticated of state security agencies, but who are they accountable to?

Here I would highlight the importance of meaningful participation in the development of both policy and technology by users (the people watching this presentation online), by human rights experts, and by individuals from marginalized and at-risk communities.  

I also note that tech monopolies are antithetical to the right to freedom of expression and privacy. As is the lack of transparency that is largely the hallmark of the tech sector.

We all know that whoever controls the future of the internet controls the future of the world. The struggle for its governance is real and epic. The Tunis Agenda for the Information Society of 2005 gave us much, but it must be renewed and revitalized in multi-stakeholder forums, including RightsCon Tunis next year.

We must and can deliver on the promise of emerging norms identified in the Paris Call, the Contract for the Web, and the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace.

Here are a few calls to action to the rule makers:

With digital attacks against activists on the rise, women the world over subject to cyber-harassment, and the rights framework under extreme pressure, the United Nations must modernize and move faster to remain relevant. The internet is multi-stakeholder by nature and that is how it is governed. The U.N. should learn to be more inclusive, too. We recently joined more than 250 NGOs to demand faster and more efficient accreditation at the Committee on NGOs. More civil society, but also more budget. The U.N. will need to allocate more than just 8% of its budget to human rights work to be on the front foot.

Members of the Freedom Online Coalition must live up to their democratic promise at home and in the realpolitik of their foreign policy. Europe must stop its companies selling surveillance equipment to rogue customers who spy on innocent citizens.

There must be a recognition by governments that the securitization of the internet is not making us safer.

ICANN, ISOC, IEEE, IETF — we hold you accountable, for now is the pivotal time in our history where tech standards are being set for generations ahead.

Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the entire tech sector, from startups to nontraditional tech, we need you to reconsider your business model to ensure it protects our rights as a rule, not as the exception.

Fortunately, we have many reasons to remain positive:

  • We have a digitally native population that is intimately aware of the complexities of data, censorship, security, and more who are coming of age daily. They will rally online for gun control as they strike against their governments and schools to protect their climate.
  • Our digital language is moving effortlessly with time. Privacy means control over your personal data; free expression means no one gets to have arbitrary control over your own content; access to information means access to a free and open internet; non-discrimination means transparency into algorithms and big data.
  • The universal nature of our human rights, and of the Declaration, is very much consistent with the universal nature of the internet. This is not an issue that can be proportioned out or dealt with individually by sovereign states. The internet will re-route around censorship, and the human spirit will endure and flourish online as it has offline for centuries.

We have overcome more violent disruptions before. Indeed those horrors that first gave rise to the UDHR appear on the rise again. But It’s not 1948, it’s 2018. The Declaration has never been more important, and with our determination, it will prove even stronger and more fully realized today, tomorrow, and in 2088 — 70 years from now.

Thank you for your time. And thank you to the Access Now community, my team, and our amazing partner organizations the world over who are the inspiration for my remarks today.