What are digital rights? | Media freedom in a connected world | DW | 05.04.2023
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What are digital rights?

The rapidity of change in the digital world means it's vital to know what digital rights are and how these rights are being restricted or eroded. Here's a primer.

Human Rights Day is celebrated every year on December 10 to commemorate the day in 1948 that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration contains 30 fundamental rights, ranging from freedom of expression and freedom from torture to the right to privacy and the right to education.

But much has changed since the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights 70 years ago. Online and digital technologies are transforming how billions of people exercise their right to freedom of expression and access to information, so much so that it's probably safe to say the Internet, coupled with mobile phones, is the most important information tool in the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt holds a printed version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Much has changed since the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights

At the same time, digital technologies allow new forms of digital surveillance and data collection that threaten certain human rights, in particular the right to privacy.

What exactly are digital rights?

Digital rights are considered to be the same fundamental human rights that exist in the offline world – but in the online world. In 2012 (and again in 2014 and 2016), the UN Human Rights Council agreed in a resolution that the "same rights that people have offline must also be protected online." This means that rather than the United Nations seeking to define new rights for the online space, they have recommended extending existing human rights to cyberspace. 

It's important to emphasize, however, that this UN resolution is not legally binding and individual countries deal with digital rights in diverse ways. In the case of privacy, for example, this right is anchored in the constitution of nearly every country in the world.

Meeting of UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland

Rights that people have offline must be protected online

However, national laws regulating privacy in the digital world (in the form of data protection laws or freedom from surveillance) often haven't kept up with the technology and might not protect privacy online.

To find out more about legal protections for digital rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a good first address, as is Data Protection Laws of the World.   

What are the challenges facing digital rights?

Digital rights are under attack from so many directions it's difficult to know where to start. But here's a quick list to give you an overview of the major issues:

  • Governments are increasingly clamping down on the Internet. According to the latest Freedom on the Net report by the pro-democracy think-tank Freedom House, in 2022 Internet freedom fell for the 12th consecutive year. According to Freedom House, in at least 53 countries, users faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, often leading to draconian prison terms. "A record number of national governments blocked websites with nonviolent political, social, or religious content, undermining the rights to free expression and access to information." Of growing concern are network shutdowns, where governments force providers to shut down the Internet or social media networks, often at politically sensitive times such as elections.
  • National security is often seen as outweighing the right to privacy or free expression. With countries in various parts of the world seeing an increase in domestic and international attacks, national security is obviously an issue. But as is discussed in this World Economic Forum post, "the conundrum is how to ensure protection while retaining the critical underpinnings of our democratic systems – free speech, freedom of assembly and association, and, critically, the right to privacy."
  • There's a lack of transparency surrounding the private corporations who largely own the Internet's infrastructure and services. Commercial companies and individuals have unfettered access to all the data and information flowing through the Internet – data such as banking, policing, health services, corporate information, private communications – but it's often difficult to know who exactly these owners are, what their political affiliations are, and if they can be trusted with this data. (Here's an excellent site about who owns telecommunications infrastructure in Eastern Europe, for example.)
  • Data regulations are insufficient to protect privacy. As people move their lives online – from shopping to banking and socializing and, well, everything really – their data reveals much about what they think and do. Therefore, the right to privacy is now dependent on strong data protection laws. Making regulation more complicated however, is that in our increasingly global world, vast amounts of data flow across borders. Unfortunately, as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development puts it, "the current system for data protection is highly fragmented, with diverging global, regional and national regulatory approaches." (You can find UNCTAD's in-depth report on data protection regulations here.)
  • Some services are concentrated in the hands of a few tech giants. Through their quasi monopoly on information, tech giants such as Facebook and Google can potentially influence or manipulate public opinion by tweaking what information their algorithms show to individuals. This becomes even more problematic with Facebook playing an increasingly dominant role in the distribution of news, whether real or fake (see below for the issue of online fake news). 
  • There's a lack of clarity about who is responsible for fake news flooding the Internet and what to do about it. Although rumors and misinformation have long been a problem online, in the wake of the US elections, tech giants, especially Facebook, have been especially criticized for helping the viral spread of falsified news. Some argue Facebook should be responsible for fake content it helps distribute in the same way media companies are, and hire editorial staff. After all, it already exercises control over the news its users see. However, the company rejects the idea that it's a media organization, leaving the question of accountability unanswered. In addition, whether news is faked to attract advertizing revenue or falsified for political or propaganda reasons, cracking down on it raises the spectre of curtailing free speech. (Here's an interesting list of suggestions on how to constructively deal with the problem.)
  • Plus there are a whole range of other challenges, such as Internet trolls, cybercrime laws, mandatory data retention, net neutrality and online tracking

Can I do something about this?

Digital rights and a free and open Internet need strong advocates and cooperative action. All sorts of groups and organizations advocate for digital rights – from the Cambodia Center for Human Rights to the Social Media Exchange in Lebanon, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Ecuador's Usuarios Digitales and the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan.

 A human rights activists wears pink glasses reading 'stop spying'

Protest against privacy violations

Some lobby against restrictive new cybersecurity laws or investigate who actually owns telecommunications companies, others create technology to circumvent Internet shutdowns or provide tech services to hacked democracy activists.

So get involved in your region or country to stop further declines in Internet freedom, and with it, our fundamental human rights. 

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